The eye of the hurricane settles over the city late on the second day. It’s predicted to be nothing more than a brief respite before the back end of the storm, still churning at over a hundred miles per hour, slams into the city and begins lashing against the sides of the office towers which have until now been preserved. Citywide safety alerts are still in effect, with residents cautioned to stay in their homes until the storm has fully passed and the pumps are finished clearing the low-lying areas, but I need to get out of Ethie’s house.
Not that I resent her trying to talk some sense into me. I just need to get to Schuster’s and see what she can tell me about this bundle of gore and wires that’s been haunting my pocket for three days. That, and I wouldn’t mind escaping the miasma of Ethie’s cigarette habit and the recurring worry that her decaying sofa is attempting to infect me with its yellow mushroom spores.
Stepping out onto the front stoop of Ethie’s home I’m reminded of my expeditions with George into the mire. The streets have become shallow streams, filled with angry currents of brown water seeking a faster path downhill. Branches and bits of garbage float in the water, eddying about like canoes being swept away by a rushing river. The office building to the left of her house appears to have weathered the storm well enough, though I think I spot a couple of cracks in the broad glass windows where bits of metal and wood have been driven before the wind like bullets from an airgun. On the other side, the dilapidated mall has not fared as well. Pieces of store signs have been ripped free from the worn stucco facing, leaving shattered pieces of plastic and twisted metal structural elements scattered across the parking lot. A few of the smaller pieces have drifted against the lee of Ethie’s home. Several unfortunate vehicles rest in the parking lot, their corpses still flooded to the wheel wells.
I borrow an old electric assist bicycle from Ethie’s garage and set down the flooded street towards Schuster’s bunker. The bike is so old that the battery dies within twenty minutes, whether drained or shorted by the water I cannot tell, leaving me to drive the uncomfortably heavy bicycle through the brown sea with only my churning legs. It takes nearly an hour for me to navigate the meandering path along the hillside streets, between the canyons of office and apartment towers, illuminated by the sickly light of the eye and the animated faces of billboards. Even the storm isn’t enough to turn off the continual flicker and flow of advertisements crawling across the faces of buildings throughout the city, though several of the gargantuan billboards I pass have lost patches of organic display to winds and debris, leaving jagged gashes across their faces like angry, gaping wounds. The residents of the buildings add to the chaotic panoply, many of them taking advantage of the break in the storm to escape their cubical apartments and get some fresh air on their balconies. Small children, young enough that they cannot remember the bloody days of plague and don’t yet know the horrors of assorted lesser polycillin resistant flesh eating bacteria, splash in the water at the foot of the front stoop. As I ride past they scream and throw pieces of trash and hand scoops of muddy water at me, shouting after me in a riot of languages.
The clouds are beginning to close in again as I pull to a stop outside Schuster’s bunker. The access corridor is flooded with at least two feet of muddy water, channeled into the path by the surrounding gardens which are themselves a mudded mess after two days of downpour.
The wind whips at my coat and hair, carrying the first splatters of rain from the back half of the storm. Looking out across the valley below, I see the dark line of rain advancing from the West beneath a churning band of clouds.
“You looked downright idyllic riding that little white bicycle up the lane,” a voice calls.
I look up above the brow of the entryway and see Schuster standing above me, her floral dress a spot of brightness against the angry sky. “Guess there’s still some romance left in you.”
“Could be I just don’t want to leave a man out in the rain to drown.” She jerks her head to the side and says, “Front doors are locked down to keep the storm water out. You can come in the back way.”
I make my way over the lip of the retaining wall and up the sodden grass hillside, struggling to lift the heavy bike.
A while ago, before corporitizaiton and the rise of the new city state, this plot of land was the garden of a sprawling private estate. The manor house is still there, a castle sitting at the top of the hill surrounded by a stand of trees and a narrow band of manicured lawn, but the property has been whittled away over the years as the declining fortunes of the owners led to them auctioning off parts of the estate to pay bills. Offices, smaller homes, and strip malls soon surrounded the once lonely manor house and the bunker, originally a launch silo for nuclear missiles and later a secret escape for the wealthy in the event of nuclear war, became Schuster’s lair. She’s never told me how she came to own the bunker, and I figure that it is better not to ask.
“You took a mighty risk biking out here in middle of the storm,” Schuster says, taking the handlebars of the bike from me and guiding it onto a path of crushed stone.
I spare another glance for the advancing wall of wind and rain, shrug, and start following Schuster towards an ornamental well surrounded by a decorative rock garden. “I walked through the thick of it a couple nights ago. Might have survived this.”
“You tell yourself that,” she replies.
Our feet make a disconcerting crunch-squelch as we walk along the sodden stone path, leaving watery tracks behind us as we walk. There is no way that the bike will fit down the access hatch at the middle of the well, so I cut the ornamental bucket down from the well’s semi-functional windlass and use the rope to lash the bike to the wooden uprights.
Schuster leans into the well, which is surprisingly devoid of water even in the midst of a hurricane, and pushes aside one of the stones at the bottom to reveal a rugged metal keypad. She types in a code, then slides the stone cover back in place and pulls at a concealed handle. A moment later I’m climbing down ladder mounted to the walls of a narrow metal tube set into the hilltop. Schuster slams shut the hatch above our heads and cranks a leaver. The tube reverberates as locking bolts ram into place.
“I never knew your place had a back door,” I say as we climb down, rung after rung into the glow of faint red light.
“Not exactly something I advertise. This isn’t even the only one. If I wanted, I could still get into the manor house without being seen.”
“Doesn’t that compromise your security? I always figured this place was impregnable.”
“There is security and there is paranoia, Talbot. You should know that.”
I think of my own security measures, and the compromises which I accept in order to make a living. You’d have to travel deep into some of the abandoned buildings on the city’s fringes, or way out into the mire to find a place that is truly immune to surveillance.
We reach the bottom of the steps and stand pressed together in a tight compartment. Schuster slips her arms around my waist and presses her cheek to my chest, pulling me tightly against her. “I’m glad you made it safe. I was more than a little worried after your last message.”
I take a deep breath, hesitate, then wrap my arms around her. I’ve never been comfortable with physical intimacy, except perhaps that casual intimacy that exists between a mother and child. As a teenager there was little room for any sexual, or even friendly, contact between members of the opposite sex, and certainly not any of the homosexual variety. In college I would watch from the sidelines, leaning back in a chair and sipping an illicit rum and coke as I admired the aesthetic beauty in the curve of a breast or the enticing bulge of underwear as my friends tussled late into the night, too drunk to care that I watched. Even now I wander fully clothed through the smoke and lights of Tamar’s club, or the delicately crafted orgies which she stages for clients, a disinterested guardian angel watching over my nubile charges.
Seth managed to break me out of my shell for a few precious months, taming my daemon with his compassion and tenderness. In another world we might have shared a joyful life, but were damned to live in this world, at this time. Rather, I was damned to keep on living in it without him.
Schuster clings to me for an eternity of eleven breaths, each exhalation hot against my chest. I wonder, just for an instant, if she will begin to cry, but such a display is beyond her. Sometimes I think that this woman, this gloriously strange creature who exists in a twilight of castoff technology and transgressive art, is in love with me, but to call what we have love would be too simple, to prone to misinterpretation by a crumbling world that already doesn’t know what to do with me.
Finally, she relaxes her arms and leans back, still holding on to my sides, to look up into my face. “You’re a puzzle, Tal. If I didn’t know you better I’d think you risked getting caught in the storm just to come and see me.”
That deserves a smile, at least. Knowing what she wants, I raise a hand and stroke Schuster’s cheek with the back of my fingers. “I came to be with you.”
“And to get away from that crowded house, I imagine.”
“Well, there is that. And this.” I reach into my coat pocket and pull out the bundle of wires and chips that the girl extracted from Vakha’s spine.
Schuster’s eyes light up as if I had just presented her with a dozen perfectly trimmed roses.
I laugh. “Schuster, if I ever did want to find a girl, it would be you.”
“As if that will ever happen.” She snatches the wires from my hands and holds them up to examine. She widens her gaze and studies the wires and circuit boards intently. “And you’ll never tie me down… unless you want to, in which case I’m down with that.”
I ignore her utterly unsubtle offer and point at the wires. “You make anything of this?”
Schuster tucks the bundle away in a pocket and turns to tap another code into the keypad beside the door. “It could be a lot of things, but I can already tell you that it’s elegant. Better than just about anything you could get on the street, and certainly beyond what the Fed and most Corps would have you believe exists. Where’d you get it?”
“How about you tell me what it is first? I don’t want to influence your analysis.”
The chamber echoes with the sound of metal locking rods slamming out of place. The door pivots open on a hidden pivot and I see that the ladder has deposited us by the main stairwell in Schuster’s private lair. The door leading out to the shop is to the right, two-thirds of the way around the walkway. “It’s obviously an implant of some sort. If you didn’t want me to guess that right away you ought to have washed the blood of it a little better.”
“I was in a bit of a rush to leave.”
“Extracted the sample yourself?”
“No. It was given to me.”
“Would you believe a ten year old girl?”
She pauses in the midst of pulling the doors to the freight elevator shut. Schuster turns and eyes me, her query as loud as if she had spoken.
“Yes, that girl.”
“Huh,” is all she says.
We ride the elevator down to the fifth level, passing the doors to Javier’s secure vault and stopping at a doorway that’s decorated with a large, cell-shaded rendition of a mecha from some sort of classic animated series. Schuster’s into that sort of thing, but I never acquired the taste for it myself. She slips a plastic card into a security console beside the door and lays her hand on the display. A heartbeat later, the door slides aside and we enter a large, brightly lit workroom. Workbenches line the walls and island stations are scattered across the chipped concrete floor. Task lighting hangs from the ceiling on articulated arms, ready to add a touch of dazzling brightness to the already bright illumination in the space. Some of the workbenches are littered with piles of small machines, others are stacked with plastic boxes containing the blinking lights of microarray computers, still others are mere staging areas for refrigerator sized rapid prototyping machines and electron microscopes.
“Welcome to the hardware haven,” she says, pausing just inside the door and waving for me to step past her. “There’s hardly a machine in production that I can’t disassemble and examine, and I can replicate just about anything north of the seventy nanometer tolerance range.”
I nod appreciatively. “Some day you’re going to have to tell me how you’ve managed to afford all of this, Schuster.”
“I’ll tell you on the day when you reveal where you got that awful coat.”
“What is it with this coat? Nobody else can see the brilliance of it.”
“There are blood stains all over it. With your paranoia I don’t even see how you can touch it.”
“Every one of them has a story. And I’ve had it dry cleaned a dozen times. No way it’s carrying anything infectious.”
Schuster sets the bundle of wires on a work bench and says, “You want to hang in here while I work, or go get something to eat? I’m not great company when I’m focusing.”
“How long do you think this will take?”
“Could be a few hours. Longer if I can access the static memory and download it. Javier will probably want to take a look at this too, especially if I can get any data off of it.”
“Any chance I could talk to him?” I ask, jabbing my thumb up towards the ceiling.
Schuster hesitates, then shakes her head. “He’s probably asleep now. Not replying to my pings.”
“I could do with a drink.”
Schuster half turns form the workbench and pulls a translucent plastic card from her hip pocket. She tosses it to me, saying, “Go ahead and register to that. It’ll give you access to my studio and suite, three levels down.”
“Can it synch to my handy?” I ask, studying the card. It’s got a multi-factor biometric security reader imprinted at one end, a set of copper data pins at the other. Bits of circuitry embedded in the translucent yellow plastic wink at me, promising a degree of intelligence which is belied by my handy making no attempt to connect with it.
“Nope. Intentional security measure when this place was built. All of the secure doors use code pads or dip keys which require physical contact.”
I press my thumb to the biometric reader. A display region in the center of the card awakes, instructing me to look directly at a black dot situated just below the contacts. A moment later the display flashes a terse acknowledgement that my thumb, iris, and face have been logged.
“Will this thing get me in to here? And what about Javier’s room?”
“Here, yes. My rooms, yep. Javier and the others need their privacy, so I didn’t tag your card for access.”
I pocket the card and head towards the exit. “Thanks for doing this, Schuster. I owe you.”
“You keep saying that. Someday I’m going to make you pay up.”
I take the winding staircase down to Schuster’s private level, dip the card into the reader, and am rewarded with a satisfyingly tactile vibration through my fingertips and feet as the locking bolts slam aside, granting me access to Schuster’s rooms. I push the door open, revealing a space lit in shocking splashes of neon and blacklight. Yvette Schuster, in addition to being the unlikely owner of a doomsday bunker, has the decorative taste of a teenager on LSD. She’s always dressed in riotous colors and mismatched pieces, and she applies that chaotic sensibility to her selection of pieces for the gallery, and to the artists she invites to work in her little menagerie.
I find the refrigerator from context, assuming that the monstrosity of spot welded steel and fluorescent plastic which protrudes from the counter a meter from the stove is more likely a home appliance than an alien power generator. Soon enough I’ve got a glass of goat milk, spiked with a generous helping of vodka, and a plate of cookies in front of me on the splatter painted bar. It strikes me as ironic that here, in a literal hive of artists who are one drone intrusion away from bugging out for the mire, I’m enjoying a peaceful, domestic snack. I consider abandoning the cookies to search Schuster’s room, figuring that there have to be some kind of psychedelics in this place, but I’m not interested in getting high. The urge, quickly quashed, is driven more by a compulsion for blending in to the context of this chamber than any personal urge for mind altering substances.
My handy is spewing news of storm damage when I open it to the local feed. Riverside is flooded up to the storm wall and already reports are coming in that two shipping haulers have broken free and slipped out into the mire. Poor bastards. The crews have got a couple days at most to get their ships back into the shipping lane before the waters recede, else they’ll be stranded in the miles of swamps that sprawl out around the river. The low-lying regions of the city are flooded too. Images of submerged homes and drowned corpses drift through the public feed, with commentators pulling the most dramatic to the forefront for comment. None of the official statements or major news syndicates are saying it, but the public feed is choked with the question that everyone is thinking: what new plague will come from this flood?
It’s happened before.
A few years back a summer storm tore across the coast, a roiling derecho which flooded the river upstream, then hit the city like a thermobaric blast. The upper city saw millions of credits of property damage from the wind, while the low-lying areas remained flooded for months, leading to an outbreak of chloramphenicol resistant cholera which killed hundreds within the city and countless more in the mire outposts downstream. Those of us in the midden fared best, for a change, with our utilities coming back online within a week and minimal damage from the winds, but we all blessed our phage loads for keeping the outbreak from spreading further than it did.
“Got any more of those cookies?”
I turn to find a sleepy looking person of indeterminate gender leaning against the door frame between the kitchen and living room. Their skeletal frame is draped in a loose fitting robe which hangs from hunched shoulders beneath a head of unkempt brown hair. Luminous tattoos crawl down their neck, tendrils woven through one another in a dayglow tangle. My hand twitches towards the knife in my sleeve, but I stop it before the blade is free. Nobody can be in this room unless Schuster has given them access.
“Who are you?” I ask, willfully punctuating the remark with a sip of milk.
“Who are any of us?” they reply with a noncommittal twirl of their fingers.
“I’m Talbot Liu,” I reply, pushing the cookie plate towards the middle of the table. “A friend of Schuster.”
“Ahhh…” they draw out the syllable, the intonation and length of it practically becoming a sentence in its own right. Nod their head, slowly.
“You know of me?”
“Yeah… oh, I know of you.”
I take another cookie for myself and munch it slowly, dipping it in the milk between each bite as I wait for the living scarecrow to speak. They seem content to watch me, moving only to pull back a mass of hair, revealing the row of earrings marching around the curve of their right ear.
Only after I finish the cookie and take a long pull from my milk do they speak again. “I thought you had a thing about body fluids.”
“You know… like… a thing.”
“You’re going to have to be more specific,” I say, wondering how much Schuster has told them about me.
“Just seems odd you drink milk when you don’t like, you know, any other bodily fluids. You know: saliva, blood, sexy juices.”
“You’ve got a really way with words,” I reply, biting back my annoyance that Schuster has been talking about me to… whoever this is. “And that’s not exactly true. It’s mostly blood.”
“Sorry. Still a bit hung over from last night. Yvette and I were up late.”
“So, you call Schuster by her first name, and I’ve told you my name, but I still don’t know what to call you.”
“Got it. Yeah…” they push off from the door and cross the space to the table in a lurching rush. An instant later they’re leaning their elbows on the table and looking at me with an expression somewhere between sympathy and hunger. I flick my eyes at the gap in the robe and up the curve of their cheek, but the harsh shadows and gaunt cheeks hide any sign of breasts or stubble. “Call me Salinas. Most people do.”
“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing in Yvette’s rooms,” Salinas says. They take a cookie from the plate and begin taking delicate bites from it, nibbling around the edge in a manner calculated to be maddening to any witness, or possibly indicative of a mental instability that makes my daemon look like a friendly, advice dispensing cricket.
“The thought had crossed my mind.”
“Well, it’s the hurricane, you see. Yvette, she took me in a few months back, the way she does. Gave me a studio down here. Used her connections to sell my art. Takes a small commission, but, you know, still less than I would have spent on rent anywhere in the upper town.”
“So you’re an artist,” I say when Salinas stops talking and returns to disassembling the cookie with their lips.
“Yeah. Interactive spatial. You know, volumetric holography, that sort of thing. Though I’ve recently become enamored of self organizing reactive installations.”
I don’t know, but I’m not about to let this flake have a hand up on me. Schuster has been housing artists in her bunker since long before I came to the city. It’s none of my business who she chooses to let into her work space, or her bed.
“Anyway, now and then Yvette will invite me up here for a night. She comes down to my rooms occasionally, but never stays the night. It’s the holography mist. Leaves a residue on everything. So, yeah… a couple nights ago she asked me to stay with her until the storm passed. Kinda weird, you know, we’re as safe as anyone can be down here, but Yvette’s so hot I figured, like, why not? You know?”
“Yeah, probably more academic for you, eh? She mentioned something about a guy breaking your heart. Anyways, that first night she’s really into it at first, but then gets all weepy, you know, after. We’re all tangled up and there she is dripping tears because she’s worried about some dude called Tal.”
“That’s a bit awkward,” I admit, and am about to say more when Salinas barrels on.
“Yeah, you know, it kinda is. So, like, I’m listening to her talk, and she’s telling me all about you, and in a way it’s kinda hot because I get the sense she’s just into me because she can’t get to you. I mean, not to harsh your groove man, but she’s really into you. ”
I finish my milk and set the glass down. Salinas has demolished the remaining cookies, nibbling them away incidentally between meandering phrases. “I am aware of this.”
“Shite, Talbot, you don’t have to be so Vulcan about the whole thing. I mean, someone with as many issues as you has to have some empathy for a girl’s pain.”
I arch my eyebrows and lean across the table towards Salinas, locking onto their unfocused brown eyes. I’ve been told on many occasions that my gaze is unsettling. Once, while sharing a dinner table in a rundown diner out in the mire, a balding killer with a scar that ran from his left ear down to the center of his bare chest told me that he had never met anyone whose eyes were as empty as mine. I’ve maybe lost a little of that over the years, but that dead gaze has been an asset in extracting information and applying pressure to deadbeats and stalkers.
Salinas finishes the last cookie and shrugs, seemingly unperturbed by my expression. “I’m just being real. She’s already getting her sex wherever she needs it. You don’t be careful, Yvette’ll cool on you. I don’t figure on her being the sort who you want on your bad side. Not that I’m complaining. She’s pretty sweet in bed, if you know what I mean.”
“Schuster and I are friends. No need to ruin that with sex,” I reply, my voice cold. It’s hard enough explaining myself to friends. I don’t need this unkempt androgyne rooting around in my sex life, or lack of it.
“You do you, man.” Salinas gapes a yawn and stretches, arching their back and cracking dozens of joints. The front of their robe pulls open enough for me to see a heavily tattooed sternum perched like an abstract canvas above a hollow belly and bony pelvis, both of which are decorated with a riot of perspective twisting tattoos. Salinas is so thin and decorated that, even so exposed, I cannot tell their sex. “I’ve got a reactive expert system to debug before I exhibit next month. ‘Course, that’s assuming that the gallery isn’t destroyed by this hurricane.”
Salinas stumbles back into the living room, then disappears into Schuster’s bedroom, calling over their shoulder, “She’s a fine woman, Tal. Don’t let her slip away.”
“If you’re so into Schuster, why don’t you try offering her some commitment?” I call. I decide it’s time for more alcohol, so I begin searching the cabinets for something more flavorful than vodka.
“I’m not into all that. I mean, what kind of artist would I be if I couldn’t screw half my clients?”
“An honest one?”