by Tom Dowd Copyright © 1997
The line outside Dante's Inferno was long, mean, and peopled with some of the most alien types I'd ever seen. I been to Seattle before, even to this very club, but the sights never failed to astonish. Sure, I understand dressing for style, for effect, but physical extremism repels me. Home, we run the shadows as hard as any, and our colors show it. We wear clothes that suit us, that make our work and lives easier, simpler. Every policlub has its own look, its special expression, but none of us would consider overt physical mutilation as a symbol of superiority.
Here in America, especially in this town, it seems you're nobody unless you can get people to notice you walking down the street. Yet for me, whose lifeisthe streets anywhere in the world, to be noticed on those streets is almost certain death.
How little subtlety exists here. I pass this line of people, all waiting to get into the same place at the same time, knowing full well they're not wanted here. Perhaps they think waiting in line for all the world to see is as good as actually dancing on the glass floors of the Inferno. In Europe, we would simply find another club rather than play the fool by standing in line.
Reaching the door, I stifled a laugh. Dwarfed by the huge size of the doorbeing, a girl in black and red was trying to talk her way past the Troll. Unlike me, she wasn't known, so she wouldn't get in. Giving the troll a nod, I brushed past, and the gander-girl cursed me for it. The way she mangled City-Speak was startling enough to make me turn and look at her. She was shorter than I, but jacked up by a pair of razor-spike boots. Her long hair, its color moving from iridescent blue to white to black and back again, framed her face. A true looker, by any standards, if you ignored the hot, quick death in her eyes. She glared at me, waiting for an equally venomous response, but I held back. Far too much was at stake tonight.
I gave her the dead-face and was about to turn and be gone when she surprised me by cursing again, this time perfectly. I smiled in amusement. Her first curse had been sudden, impulsive, and fractured. The second was perfect, even down to the cross-talk inflection. She was chip-trained, no question, but trained only. If she had been wearing, her first shot would have come out like a veteran's.
I couldn't help but smile even more broadly as I looked her over more closely. The apparel was right: all the proper straps and chains tight or loose as the fashion demanded. Quad-colored earrings danced slowly on her ears, glittering in the lights of the street. Her corneal tint was near- phosphorescent, designed to pull your eyes to hers even in the darkest shag- joint. She was absolutely perfect, the ultimate gander-girl, and therein lay her failure to pull it off. But that was what intrigued me.
I weighed my options, her paradox versus my purpose tonight, and decided to take the risk. I nodded again at the troll and spoke just loud enough for him to hear, "Say, friend, she's with me."
The girl apparently heard me, and started slightly at my words, I motioned for her to take the lead. She glanced once at the Troll, but turned just as quickly away from his sudden, feral grin. As she stepped forward, I guided her with the gentle pressure of my fingertips at the small of her back. Once again, she gave herself away. Her jacket was real denim, not the cheap synthetic that a "real" gander-girl would wear.
We continued on into the uppermost level of Inferno. Though I hated the place, I always found myself becoming a semi-regular out of sheer habit whenever I was in town. I'd first met Dante in London, where I'd done a run for him involving his London club. Now he always made sure I got first class treatment, no doubt because the story of our dealings would leave him cut into little pieces if it ever leaked out. EBM never forgets.
The band had apparently just taken the upper stage. A staccato riff from the lead ten-string triggered the sync-systems, bathing the levels in pulsating light and liquid noise. Shag-metal was rip in this town, which made my desire to go transcontinental all the stronger. It was enough that I could very well die tonight, but the thought of "Bangin' the Duke" as my funeral dirge was too much.
I wanted to believe that my people were different than these nighttrippers thrashing about me now. I wanted to believe that things back home were different, that my people had some memory, some honor, for the glory of our cultural past. I wanted to believe that even a shadow of our rich history and traditions still existed. I wanted to believe that we were superior to these Americans, with their all-consuming lust for the new. But I knew that our magnificent past had all but vanished from mind, as though it had never been. Technology had blurred the differences between nations, and chipped languages had destroyed Europe.
The Restoration may have revived our lands and our people physically, but it had almost totally destroyed us culturally. Worshipping the grail of unrestricted growth, the Euro-corps were the driving force behind this so- called Restoration. Erasing the national boundaries meant no more import/export tariffs. It meant the availability of vast pools of cheap labor. It also meant death to 3,000 years of dynamic social expression. That was why I believed that radical politics and a return to nationalism and radical politics were our only hope for rescuing the individualism, the uniqueness of our many peoples. The Neo-Europe District of the Global Village must never come to pass.
The policlubs had been born from the urgency many felt for another kind of Restoration. We, too, wanted to rebuild Europe, even if it meant a return to more contentious times. Ours would not be a Europe homogenized for mass consumption. For better or worse, it would be a Europa Dividuus. We alone kept alive the flame of political activism and expression. Without us, Europe would soon become a corporate Disneyverse. The various policlubs did not, of course, agree on the means or even the ends, but was that not just as it should be? The restoration might appear to be proceeding apace, on the surface. Behind the scenes, we were at war. In the streets, on the data-faxes, in the hearts and minds of those alive enough to listen. Europe would not become another Manhattan, not even another Seattle. I'd come to make sure of that.
I pulled gently on the girl's coat and she turned to eye me quizzically. "Watch the dancers," I said, moving a few steps away to lean against a light- filled pole. Relaxing my whole body, I focused my attention on the pulsating lights of the lasers, letting the rhythm fill me.
A moment passed. Then a longer one. Existence ended and I was free. My vision shifted beyond the confines of my body and I viewed the world as few others could. Oblivious to me, the ghosts of men and women locked in the mundane world were still dancing madly. I scanned this level quickly. There was some minor activity from the faint auras of chip trinkets hawked on the street corners by charlatans, but no bright blossoming or shifting images to warrant further interest.
The astral forms of the dancers on the glass floors at each level below me blocked much of my view, but I dropped quickly through all the levels to where I could contemplate my destination. I saw the cool green of the shield- wall enclosing it, but caught no sign of the person I was to meet there. The shield prevented me from knowing whether she was within its embrace. The only way to penetrate its mystery was to walk through physically. To break through the shield any other way was something neither I nor most other humans could do.
My body jerked once as my mind returned. The girl was looking at me again, as though to ask what was next. I stepped forward, took her hand, and led her away.
We moved down the ramp a few levels. Halfway to our destination, I paused at the sight of a corporate cowboy whose clothes bore the symbol of the Saeder-Krupp dragon and the German flag hologo. The coincidence gave me pause, but I shook off the thought that the woman I was to meet had brought others along. It wasn't at all unusual to see people wearing the popular dragon-logo design. Besides, the woman knew too little of my motives or my knowledge at this point. She was both crafty and powerful, but I had been careful to keep her guessing. "Know your enemy and then use that knowledge against him" was one of the mottos of her following. All she knew about me was what I wanted her to know-or so I hoped. Too bad I knew even less about her. Ignoring another questioning glance from my companion, I guided her on.
Reaching the sixth level, we went over to the nearest bar and I signaled the barkeep. Feeling the girl move gently against me, I looked into her eyes.
Her gaze dipped and rose. Beneath the slightly glowing tint, her eyes were royal blue. "My name's Karyn," she said, "with a 'y'."
I smiled. "No it's not."
She blinked twice and the Elf wiped the area in front of us, leaning in. Tallin pitched his voice to me alone, speaking in clear, unaccented Russian. "Greetings, my friend. How is the Art?"
I replied in the same tongue, though I was definitely rusty. "Harried, as usual."
"A man named Shavan is waiting for you in Hell."
He shrugged. "Figure of speech."
"So ka. Give me the usual, and a Firedrake for my friend." I pulled my credstick from its wrist-sheath, but the Elf waved it away.
His words were in English as he moved down the bar. "Taken care of, my man," he said. "The Inferno still owes you." I returned the stick to its sheath. Dante's debt to me would be repaid with interest tonight.
The crowd roared and a glare of hard, colorless light cut the room. I'd seen this act before and figured the lead singer had just lit a small piece of NightLight and was gleefully trying to shove it down someone's throat. Ah, art.
The girl pressed against me again, her hand lying casually on my thigh. "Nice line," she said, dropping the timbre of her voice. "I almost believed you did know. Just for a second."
This time I didn't smile. "You're still not sure." Our drinks arrived as I spoke, making her gape in surprise at the Firedrake. I shot down my Blind Reaper and touched her arm.
"That's your favorite drink." She looked up at me, eyes still wide. "And your name is not Karyn, with a 'y.' And you're not from anywhere near here." Now fear also swam in her eyes. "But no matter," I told her. "Tonight, you're with me."
I brought her hand up to my face, gently kissed her palm, and then closed it. "I have business. It may take some time, but I want you to hold something for me." Power danced quietly behind my eyes and she gasped. She'd felt the change.
Her hand opened slowly and a jumble of brilliant red silk unfolded, forming first a flower, and then falling open in a drape that covered her hand. I gathered it up and tied the flare of color around her throat. She touched it and stared at me, an odd glistening showing through her corneal tint. The corner of her mouth twitched slightly.
"You can give it back to me later." My voice was low, barely audible, and she strained forward to hear me.
She'd felt the silk appear in her hands, but wasn't sure if I'd used bar- stool sorcery or the real thing to put it there. She'd think about it, and then think about it some more, and then want to know. Later, I'd let her.
Brushing her cheek and then her hair, I moved away without looking back. If my business went well, I would be alive enough afterward to need a place for disappearing. If I'd read her right, the girl was the bored daughter of some equally bored ultrasilk-suit type. Tired of the macro-glass scene, she'd become enraptured by the rhythm and color of the streets, but remained blind to its workings. Too frightened of being rejected for her real identity, she'd gandered herself up the way they did in the vids. By following the templates to the letter, she'd given herself away.
The quadruple ramps spiraled downward around the outer edge of the club, mimicking the gene-spiral quite nicely. Deeper and deeper into corruption I walked as each level mimicked the names and places of Dante's nightmare: the author's and the owner's. I ignored the screams and other sounds, preparing myself as I descended.
Below the lowest dance floor, down a short, winding ramp, was Hell. No sign marked its location. You had to know it was there. Flanking its entrance were a pair of lightly clad androgynous figures who watched every step of my approach with a near-feverish interest. I stuck my hands in my pockets, and the twins twitched. I flashed them a grin.
"Shavan is waiting for me."
The one on the left nodded as the one on the right spoke. "Indeed," it said in a tone of menace. "You are expected." The bodies of the twins were perfect, scarless, some say the best ever made in Chiba. I doubted it, but not that they were the perfect guards for Hell.
Flash the fat credstick and you could rent Hell and be assured of complete privacy. It was swept magically and electronically before and after every meeting. Once the participants were inside, no one else got in. No spirit-eavesdropping here. The astral shield prevented that. No way in through the higher plane, either, which was exactly what Shavan would be counting on.
Hell's designers had been kind enough to include a sizable foyer just inside the doors to allow a moment of preparation. Unfortunately, there were few spells I could raise and maintain that she wouldn't detect. Keeping her calm until just the right moment would be the key to my walking away from this meet. I checked my gear once and then dropped down into a lotus position on the floor. The rhythm of my pulse released me and I gave the shield lattice and the area a quick astral once-over. Everything was quiet, but it was still early. My senses returned and I prepared myself.
Shavan was an enigma. As the head of the policlub known as The Revenants, she wielded great power. Little was known about her, and less than a handful had ever actually met her. The only description I'd ever heard was that she was apparently of Nordic descent, but in this day and age, only a DNA-marker test could tell it for sure. She was a powerful sorceress and had relied on that to conceal her trip to Seattle. She needed to speak to someone, and that someone was not about to come to her. What she hadn't counted on was that a good friend of mine knew how to look better than she knew how to hide.
Shavan had been surprised that I'd known she was in Seattle, let alone where to find her. She'd thought her business was deep in the shadows. That was her first mistake. Her second was believing that what I'd offered her was genuine.
I'd chosen the meeting place, one known for its security, and she'd chosen the time. My only security was her word that she'd be there, and that was enough. We both had reputations to live up to.
I stepped through the inner doors to find her waiting for me, according to plan. I was late.
"Alexander," she said, a slightly wicked smile crossing her face, "fancy meeting you here."
The sight of her was so different than what I'd expected that I scanned the room to hide my surprise. The room and its accessories were pure white, in startling contrast to the woman. Everything about Shavan was dark. Her clothes, her skin, her eyes, even her voice.
She laughed. "I believe this is yours." Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a ball of bright red silk and let it drop gently onto one of the sofas.
The odds against me walking out of here in one piece suddenly crashed dramatically. My mind raced through the possibilities of how she could have gotten the silk, as I rejected every one just as quickly. There was no way she could have and still beaten my arrival here. Regardless, she had used the ploy to good purpose, having broken my momentum. With my options halved, I was still at least five minutes away from playing my real cards. Until then, my bluff would have to do.
I picked up the silk and tied it at my throat. "Do you like it?" I kept my voice as level as I could manage.
She seemed amused. "Like it?"
Her amusement grew. "Ah, well, it's lovely, I must admit. And real, no doubt." Keeping me in view, she turned slightly to mix a drink.
"One hundred percent."
"Only the best for Alexander."
I let several long moments pass as I wandered casually to the audio-visual console and scanned the selection menu. "Only the best for Gunther Steadman," I said, pressing the touch-sensitive screen. I cued the first to start midway-though, and the second to follow it after a short pause.
Mention of Steadman gave her such a start that I caught her surprise even as she mastered it. She knew she was dead. I sensed the fear and anger that washed over her before she regained her calm. For someone of her power, Shavan was far too easy to read. All the better.
Nonchalantly, she finished mixing her drink, and turned back to face me directly. "Red was never Steadman's color," she said coolly.
The music I'd selected had begun to play now, giving her pause and me another opening. Choosing this piece had been a gamble. Hearing it now, I wondered briefly if I'd overplayed my hand.
"It is now," I said, letting the music almost drown my words. She heard me, though, for I sensed another wave of tension wash over her.
"This wouldn't be some kind of threat, would it?" Only her eyes followed me as I moved to sit on a nearby float sofa. "I think Mozart's 'Requiem' is hardly suitable background for a business dealing." Her voice was flat, expressionless.
I shrugged. "I like it. It relaxes me. Just think of it as being in honor of Steadman."
She relaxed fractionally, and thinking me none the wiser, lied. "So he'sdead."
I nodded, stretching my arms out across the back of the couch, and told her what I was damn sure she already knew. "Three days ago in Hamburg. Bullet-train in the skull. Nasty, very nasty." And there was only one way she could have known I hadn't lied.
"So who's running Der Nachtmachen now? Who are you representing?" she asked, studying me intently.
"It's not really important," I replied casually. "The offer is the same."
"On the contrary. It's very important." She crossed the short distance between us, gracefully lifted herself onto the back of the couch opposite me, and assumed the lotus position. "I want to know."
The first part of the "Requiem" was coming to its conclusion, and I knew my five minutes were slowly trickling away. Standing up, I placed my left boot on the low glass table and adjusted the straps. I did it so slowly and carefully so as not to alarm her, wanting mainly to annoy her with the delay in my response. When I'd finished, I sat back down exactly as before.
I smiled before speaking. "Technically, I'm the one who's running things now."
Her eyebrows shot up. "You!" She was incredulous. "You're lying. The Nightmakers would never accept you. You're a runner and too damn close to what they hate most."
I shrugged lightly. "Think of it as a military coup," I said, staring her straight in the eyes. "Besides, I said 'technically.' I issue the orders, but they come from Steadman's mouth. Rather, what's left of it."
False understanding glinted in her eyes. "You're playing on that religious fanatical edge they've always had, aren't you?"
Nodding, I noted that the "Introitus" had ceased. The next selection was about to begin after the pause I'd programmed. Time to play my cards. I stood up.
"Enough talk." I was sensitive enough to emotions to know how to manipulate, even in one like Shavan. My movement, pitch, and inflection snapped her onto the defensive. "We've made a decision. Der Nachtmachen no longer finds it acceptable for you to be the shadow- liege of The Revenants. Our unification offer is withdrawn."
Shavan unfolded herself and stood up to face me, her eyes taking on a Medusan quality. No doubt about it, the lady was angry. "No longer finds it acceptable?" she hissed. "You think you can bully me? Bully us?" I didn't need my astral sight to see the power building. "Saeder-Krupp has already agreed to the funding, my stupid friend. With their nuyen, The Revenants will yank the reins of the European Restoration out of the hands of the bureaucrats and put them back in the hands of the people!"
I shook my head, turned, and step-vaulted over the float couch, putting it between us. Landing with a turn, I saw she'd cut herself short on a spell, but not short enough to hurt. "I think I read that on your last scream sheet, didn't I?" I pushed back my leather coat and jammed my thumbs in my pants pockets.
Her voice and anger rose together, and I knew myself only moments away from cinder-city. "You of all people know I'm right!" Her left hand shot out to point at me. "How many trillions have already been spent so that the contractors and analysts can build their villas?"
I shrugged yet again. "I don't know, but I was always fond of The Revenants' little hideaway on the Riviera. Great view."
Shavan's anger solidified as her arm slowly came down and she shifted into a neutral, pro-aggressive stance. "Why now? Der Nachtmachen has always supported our view. Steadman did, his people did, even you did--when you cared to comment. I want to know why you've changed your minds." Ever kind, she left out the words "before I kill you," but her tone was clipped and hard. Without realizing it, she'd shifted into German. My programmed pause was almost up.
"Why? We haven't, and you haven't been listening." I slowly spread my hands wide. I walked clear of the furniture and dropped myself into a lotus position, and in doing so, declared a duel. She smiled, but I continued. "Der Nachtmachen firmly believes in Europa Dividuus, no question. You, however, made the wrong move."
About five meters from me, she dropped down as well, mimicking my position. I nodded, we breathed, and the world became walls of scintillating green energy. The shield that kept out prying eyes and hands would provide the limits of our battle. We couldn't get out, and nothing could get inside--or so she believed.
As we shifted, I'd triggered the spell imbedded in my pinky ring. As I floated free, it manifested adjacent to my body as a point of twirling copper light. She could tell by looking that its power level offered her no threat, but she kept an eye on it anyway.
"You went to Saeder-Krupp," I said. "You wanted the nuyen, but you could have gotten that from just about anyone. You kept it quiet because you didn't want it known you were getting the credit from a corporation." The glare in her eyes was truly blinding, and her aura left no question that I was seconds from death. I had to keep talking, keep her interested just long enough.
"More than money, you wanted the Dragon, and you wanted him enough to come to Seattle to see him." I paused and her eyes narrowed. "You wanted Lofwyr behind you."
"So?" she snapped. "With the Dragon backing us, we could rally the apathetic Awakened."
"Saeder-Krupp is one of the controlling corporations of the Restoration. Why would he betray it for a bunch of street hustlers?"
Her eyes glinted as she saw an opening. "I've spoken with him. You forget howoldhe is. A Restored Europe would quickly become a concrete Europe. He wants it to return to the way he remembers it."
Now it was my turn. "Damn it, Shavan! Haven't you ever read Saeder-Krupp's profile? Who do you think builds more heavy industry plants in Europe every year? Who do you think pumps more toxins into the atmosphere? Who do you think pollutes more rivers?"
"Those are all companies he bought. It takes time to bring them into line environ--" A shape moved somewhere beyond the shield and I cut her off hard.
"I don't run Der Nachtmachen. A friend of mine does.And he doesn't want his brother screwing around in Europe!"
We both moved. My hands slammed together and I pumped all my will into the Shattershield spell. Raw astral force ripped around us, and hot power streamed upward out of me, tearing into the lattice of the shield. I felt tendrils of ice whip into me as her attack struck. I reeled, trying to control the power arcing around me. As my bolt impacted, the shield was hit hard from the outside. Unable to withstand the dual concussion, it shattered, raining prismatic energy. A dark form poured down through the shards as the music exploded out of my copper energy globe.
Falling away, my power slipping from me, I saw her for the last time. The Dragon's astral form slammed into her, its unearthly claws tearing great jagged rips into her spirit body. Magical energies flowed from her to course ineffectually around the Dragon. I shuddered as her screams merged with the Dragon's roar.
"Shavan, meet Alamais!" I cried out, unheard.
The world spun into the red-tinged darkness, the music stopped, and I grew calm.
Sometime later, I floated. My senses were dead, but I was acutely aware of the sensation.
I tried to turn toward the source, but found it to be everywhere. Alamais, I thought.
I may have smiled. "You have a distinctive thought-voice."
"I would imagine."
There was a pause, and I waited.
"So?" I said finally.
"So, did you get her?"
The Dragon snorted, and I felt a warm shudder. "Every last bit."