A short story/snippet. Possible sequel later. Inspired by too much Neil Gaiman before bedtime.
I woke up the next morning with a splitting headache, my sheets pulled off the bed and wrapped around me like a shroud. the instinctive response was to burrow deeper into them, pull the cotton over my head and close my eyes until the carbon dioxide forced my arms into motion to rip them away and ressurect me, but I managed to subdue it and instead rolled over, to stare at the celing.
It was a nice celing, as celings went, as my celings went anyhow, almost approaching clean. But I had stared at it before and my headache was driving me toward the bathroom where if I had counted right there would be five tiny white pills left. My legs felt like rubber and my hair fell in my eyes, and I had to remember to detour around the chalked circle on the floor, because it really wouldn't do to mess that up this early before I had gotten rid of the headache, at least. The computer was making the soft humming noise that meant it was still processing the variables, and I patted it, dislodging the pile of green paper onto the floor, as I brushed against it. My legs still looked like sticks, and they were covered in a fine layer of blond hair, a fact which had always puzzled me a little. I managed to open the bathroom door without falling over. Two pills should be enough. I had to fight to get the lid off.
I swallowed them dry, then turned on the tap and took a gulp of water in my hands. It tasted a little like blood. To check I pulled out the knife from the medicine cabinet and made another incision on the palm of my right hand. It felt a little odd to do this in the morning but it was all in a good cause and so I licked it and decided that the water was indeed a little too sanguine today. One more bit of trouble. I took a comb to my hair and managed to get it looking a bit better, then went back out into the main room. The pills had kicked in sometime while I was combing my hair. It left a buzz in my head like a swarm of hornets, and it was a long moment before I noticed the computer had stopped humming.
I swore for the fifth time that month to start taking my naps off something that didn't leave be with splitting headaches and save the white pills for when I really needed them. It took me several moments to find clothes, and all I could find clean were a green buttondown shirt that had been probably been manufactured before the Breakup and trousers that I knew for a fact actually belonged to Larry. They had probably been black once and they were far too loose for me, so I belted with a spare data cable and sat cross-legged in front of the computer, tapped out a short sequence on the keyboard and rewarded with a series of beeps.
Gradually the screen cleared to reveal a series of five numbers: 134 67 74 55 626, and the word DARCINE. Shit. Shit. I didn't spend two days (was it two days? I thought it was two days, the light was right, it could have been more or less, I hand't checked) in a drugged stupor to get this. No wonder I had woken up with a headache. After a few seconds of furious typing the computer grudginly yielded a latitude and longitude. At least it had been able to find them. I asked it for the time and date. It gave them to me with a lot less noise. Five days. I had been out for five days. That was some kind of record, but I wasn't in the mood to celebrate. I realized that I was still wearing the plug and so I yanked it out, which was a bad idea since it left a large bloody hole in my neck, so I staggered back into the bathroom and took another of the white pills and covered it with a bandage. I glared at myself in the mirror for a while. My hair was still hanging in my eyes and it looked a touch blonder than I remembered, verging on platinum. That was a symptom, I imagined. That, or it had bleached in the sun while I had been asleep. Probably the latter. My hair bleaches obscenly fast.
I still needed a shower, just to ease my mind, get out of the processing mode, even though I was hardly dirty. I dropped the clothes in a heap on the floor wondering why I had put them on and turned on the water. It still smelled like blood. I ignored that and made another cut on my hand, stepped in the shower, licked at my hand until the blood stopped flowing and then I washed my hair with the liquid soap, twice, and my body once, to be safe. It smelled faintly of almonds. The contrast between the almond soap and the bloody shower water (it was starting to turn pink, just a little) made my gorge rise but I fought it down, and I stood there until the soap was gone and the water was only blood, then I stood there until the water was cold and the pink tinge no longer smelled of anything at all. Got out, turned off the water, towled myself off and comped my hair again (it had grown while I was out, too, down to my collar) and put the clothes back on. I found a leather belt in the cubboard under the sink and replaced the cable with it, and tried to remeber where I had left my shoes. I always get forgetful after I've been taking my naps. Side effect, and one more reason to switch drugs. I'd try switching plugs, but I'd get the same with a different model. Popular folkelore that there's actually any difference.
I sent a message to Larry to say I'd be out of town for a bit, found my shoes under my jacket left piled on the doormat, put both on, scribbled the numbers down on the back of one of the ofuda I dug out of the left pocket of the jacket (little cards with kanji on them can be quite useful if applied properly, even if done in ballpoint on index cards), failed to find my hat. The money was in the canvas bag, right next to the knives and the printouts and the needlegun and the bottles. Just to be sure I took the plug back into the bathroom, washed it off, and added it to the bag, then the last two pills and the spare cable.
I walked out the door with the canvas bag over my shoulder and locked the door behind me. It took a bit of rummaging to find my sunglasses. Someday I'd be rich and get an apartment that opened on a hall instead of a balcony with puddles where the concrete was uneven and railings that sang when it was windy. Hah.
The rain started by the time I had gotten on the bullet west. It splattered against the windows and made the scenery invisisble. I didn't miss it. My stop wasn't for another hour so I pulled out a blue pill and swallowed it dry, letting it slide down to dissolve in my stoumach acids and drip into my veins. Five days, and I liked to take my time coming down. Five days. The rain starts to turn colors, but mostly a sort of purple, for the hum of the motor. My life is pervaded, defined, by various humming noises. The passengers turn into one more. There are interruptions as more get on and off. I wait, patiently, leaning against the window. Blue pills are the best for coming down on. Synathsthesia is very soothing on a bullet. The blue shades almost imperceptibly to purple after a while and I know that that is a symptom. I don't know why I involve myself in this mess. If I were not paying attention to it, I wouldn't even notice. Most people don't. All the better for them.
When we reached Roseborough I was coming down with a thud but I managed to find my way out of the bullet and down the abandoned streets until I had to stop and lean against a doorway and shake with weakness for a while. When the world returned to its normal colors, I pulled out the ofuda with the numbers on it and the good knife, the one I had gotten from the dead body of an amatuer diviner five years ago. The rain was still coming down. It washed down like blood. I had to imaging it; the rain wasn't going to smell of blood. Meat and chemicals. Meat and chemicals. Rain smells like the refuse of Man. I remeber sometimes, when I cast my mind back, rain that smelled like fresh air, like a mowed lawn, like the grass bleeding. That was rain then. This is rain now. Perhaps it is blood. It smells like it. breathed in and out and wited for the rain to drum its way into my soul. The pill has gone away and the landscape has shaded intself back in exclusive black-and-white tones, the inevitable return from Oz. There's graffiti covering the walls. This is an old town, still covered in brick. "Death be not proud," reads a rather literary offeirng across from me. I've never thought of death as mighty and dreadful. Then again. I never learned to be afraid of anything. That's my saving grace. Not many people know that fear is a learned response. Learned and can be unlearned. Except I never learned. I never feared. I should have.
If I had feared I would have gone to sleep for good by now. Advantages turn on their heads. The ties that hold body to soul loosen just a little, but the silver cord is never loosed. Not for some of us. Larry always accusing me of being too literary but somebody has to do it, which is the same reason that I'm now sitting in a doorway in Roseborough staring at graffiti and shaking from the downturn.
I wasn't sure when I had sat down. I certainly hadn't any idea where to go next, since I didn't have the GPS and I sure as hell wasn't putting my plug back in, not this early. There were other ways. Better ways. I hated doing this in the morning, but it occured to me that between the bullet ride and the long walk it was almost certianly afternoon by now, so that was alright. I took out the good knife, the one I'd taken from the second-rate diviner's dead body after the St. Catherine incident, and slit open my palm, cupping my palm to let the blood form a pool. The pool reflected nicely, excpet for the wind-waves. It was very shallow, but that was inevitable. The cut was already scabbing over. I breathed on it and whispered words of invocation, and gradually, the reflection cleared. It showed me the face again. Nonspecific queries. Damn nonspecific queries. I chanted some more, and it shimmered into the red image of the front a house, an old house, soot-stained, paneling stacked next to the door. That was easy enough. Never one for waste, I tipped the blood into my mouth. It tasted of salt, of tides before oil pollution, or perhaps that was just my romanticism and my blood didn't smell of anything but the pills.
I held it in my mouth and swished it around for a bit before I swallowed. I know the taste of my own blood now. I sometimes forget the taste of other things. I stood up, examined the three cuts on my hand - two almost healed, one just scabbed over - and cleaned off the last of the blood with m tounge like a cat, then began to walk north.
I can do some things. I can't do everything. I can't change the course of human events, or human nature, or even my own events, my own nature. This is what I can do. Not even for the money. Not even for the rush. Just because this of all things is the one thing I have chosen, is all. And because I'm good at it. Who knows. Maybe I'd get lucky. I'm certianly overdue, assuming my overall balance is supposed to be nuetral. Which is a large assumption.
The streets were, of course, deserted. Not a single person looked twice at me, which is how I liked it. I've spent a lot of time learning to become invisible. The details vary but the trick is always the same. This is another thing I can do. I skate along the sidewalk, stumbling, keeping my eyes on the graffiti. "This sentence is false." "Simon Says." Five hundred taggers. Bits and pieces, the flotsam and jetsam of life.
The house was just as I saw it. Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to be wrong. I suppose it's a bit like being afraid. I've never been that, either. Fear is a learned response. Most people forget this. Some people never learn. Perhaps if I had, I wouldn't be here. Perhaps if I had, I'd have been dead by now, forgotten, dust. I've never decided whether to be sad for that or to hold on to it as the proof that I have, after all, been winning. Have, in some sense, already won.
He wass waiting for me in the attic, where I knew all along that he'd be. The setup is simple, after all. Three mainframes, linked, woven and warded and tiled with a rather elegant sequence of ofuda to the chalk circle on the floor. Dead things adorn the corners. The man was standing next to the mainframe, looking small, looking old.
'Oh,' he said to me softly. 'You. I suppose you've come to take this down?'
'No,' I sais. The wards are still up. I can do this, though. I can still do this. 'I've come to disconnect its essential components. And only those. I had to sleep on it,' I added conversationaly. 'When I went to bed I was sandy blond. Now it's platinum. The tap water tastes like blood. The colors are changing. Little things.'
He smiled, actually smiled. I recognized his voice now. The little man in the corner, at the Panama Conference, who spent the entire time explaining things in his soft, patient, tones. Fatherly tones. I never trusted fatherly tones. 'How are you going to do that, pup? I have, of course, put things in order.'
'I like order.' I stepped forward and displyed a spread of ofuda with both hands. 'It makes my job easier.'
He smiled again, and shook his head patronizingly. 'Not in this case. I'm so sorry to dissapoint.' The rain against the window is a constant tatoo. I counted heartbeats, stare him in the face. This is it. Quick and simple. In and out. I like this job.
'Please, present my compliments to your employer.' He bowed slightly, and I removed the knife I had hidden behind the ofuda and tossed it directly at his heart. It made a meaty thumping sound, and the wards shuddered, then collapsed into yellow puddles on the floor. I could the dead things now. I hated this. The dead man had fallen across the circle, making a few small smudges. The smell of the blood was compelling , but I ignored it, firmly, pushing down the bit of me that wanted to rip and nuzzle through the man's secret places into the warm heart below. I don't normally kill people I don't know, but sometimes I'll make an excpetion. I kept it clean. I like to kill people slowly, when I can. I like to know thier secrets first. I like to make love to them slowly as I rake my nails down their body and close my teeth on their neck, let our blood intermingle as we descend together, and I whisper words of comfort in their ears as their breath rattles out of their bodies and their blood stains their bedsheets. I like to kill people who have fallen in love with me. I drink their lives first, I know them completely, and then I soak in the pain as they die, never even realzing they have been betrayed. I thrive on it. I drink it raw. This was not how it should have been. But it is how it was, and I swallowed and clenched my fists and began to examine the mainframes.
The cables that connect them to each other and to the circle were muticolored, a florid tangle that spilled almost to the spot where the wards would have stood, had they not died with their master. It's astonishing how many people forget to ward against simple physical attack. That's the oldest way.
The summoning was complex. So intricate, so beautifully encoded, but nontheless, it leaked. Leaks are inevitable. That is why this spell is too beautiful to live. I read it over, note its relevant points, and realize that even if I have to destroy it, I can get a bit of my blood this way, I can drink his work if not his life. The bandage seperates from my skin with a small pull and I shove the plug back in, holding my breath to alleviate the inevtable nausea of the joining, and I take the little cable that's just dangling off the monitor and I plug it in.
It's such a rush. It's deeper this way. This is why I don't like to plug in awake. But for this once I need it. I need this feeling, this understanding, this incredible closeness. I let it finish and I rip the plug out again, ignoring the pain, get it out before my hands start shaking too badly to remove it. It dangles, there, innocuous. I stuff it back in my bag and take a blue pill, cutting my hand again to keep it from softening me.
I calmly deleted the file, then overwrite it, using the dead man's own emergency script, The deed is done, the file is gone. Except to me. I remember. I can't download it, I can't use it, I can only rebuild it. I press the memory to the back of my mind. This is a secret. This has to be a secret.
I don't know why he used so many cables. There are such things are wireless networks. There are such things as interlocks. But they to provide me with a good target and so I ripped, pulled, yanked at them until the mainframes were inncuous, seperate, the chalk circle was just a chalk circle with dead things lying on it, the humming was gone. The power was off. My life is defined by hums. Another bit closed. Dead. Gone for good. This had taken a lot less time than I had expected.
The dead things were starting to stink. I headed back downstairs, nicked a beer from the refrigerator, and headed back out into the empty, brick-lined streets of Roseborough. The beer tasted a little of blood. The rain dripped into it, leaving it a little oily, a little dirty, just like me. I took the second-to-last of the white pills and clenched my fist, reopening the last of the cuts, and licked at it for the salt taste. The rain dripped down into the streets and I stared the the graffiti and listened to the hum of the power cables.
Comments welcomed. This is not quite a finished piece, but the final form will show up eventually. </P