BOOK ONE - DIE!

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE -  BAD AIR

 

            Two days, two more heathers and an ocean of khegma later, Raf Sihree's man-monkey, marches Captain Munson, Turp and Broonzy across the red stones of the crimelord's floor; their reflections bouncing off polished metal walls, clouded with vapors from the breathing vents that pipe survivable (if not savoury) air through the villa.  "Twelve percent oxygen," Glock boasts, "under a pressure of one-six gees…"

          "Feel like I'm gonna puke," Broonzy glowers. "How the jam does your boss stand it?"

          "Bodies adapt, faq? Couple hundred years, five or six generations, and you get used to it. Raf says the air in Tao City makes his sinuses ache. Too rich, too many toxins. It can get raw out here, but hey!... it's clean…"

          "Except when come the methane emergency…" Captain Munson glowers, casting sharp, nervous glances out a glassless window with a view of the methyards across a ruddy expanse of bare rock, slowly rising to a series of rolling hills.  A breather dangles from his fist like a dead cat, oxygen content outside in this part of Die's three percent, maybe four.  Cap'n's a big jim, face flushed with heavy breathing, but jammed if he's going to go face to face with Raf exhibiting a state of physical subordination.

Glock knocks the wall for luck… it appears to be wood, or a sturdy, metallic imitation thereof. He swipes open a door leading up and away from the hovercraft port under the villa, gesturing back into the shadows.  "Got a built-in shelter, down that way," Sihree's gorilla beams.  "An' most yards are on the other side of those hills, so it's hard to catch a bad dose short of level eight, or so. Safer than the Spaceport! Speaking of which, I hear, you got a rawth of a deal out there with the Regency inspectors..."

          "Not me," the Captain replies, shaking his leonine head for emphasis so that the tawny ringlets rise and fall as if on wings of the thin, Outland wind. "Company did.  It becomes matter for the lawyers.  Demons, those all."

          "Really? Ain't what I heard from Mister Sihree… little bird told him you don't get the bird back to Ursa, no pay…"

          "Captain?" Broonzy wonders…

          "They wouldn't do that!" Munson declares, angrily now.

          "Not my place to give opinions, anyway," Glock reasons.  "Things'll get worked out…" he tries to assure them, "take it easy, meanwhile. Take a little fun outa the life.  Put on a face, now…"

He gestures ahead. Raf Sihree is holding court, half a dozen wiseguys huddled round an old fashioned barbecue grill set up in a sort of patio, surrounded by the villa on three sides. Captain Munson advances, unmasked, shakes hands with Sihree and engages him in gruff, low-keyed conversation, leaving his snakers to their own devices.  Without Munson's disapproving glare, both fit breathers over their mouths and noses, sucking greedily. There are muffled grunts and whimpers… Turpin blinks behind the confines of the apparatus, and looks again. A child, no older than six or seven soylers, is tied to the wall, gagged and squirming.  Wires sprout from her scalp and limbs like long, multihued parasitic worms. Glock picks up a small electronic box… glances at the two snakers.

          "Is that… I heard of this rawth," Broonzy says…

          "Ever feel the death rush without death? Pleasure without pain... well, without your own pain, that is," Glock coaches them.  "You like it. You'll get to need it."

The child struggles against her restraints.  A beetle-browed dwarfling in white kitchen scrubs empties a plate of meat upon the grill - there comes a hissing and smoke from the seared flesh.  Raf Sihree and his cronies spurn the complex, conventional cutlery of Doobydie, each wields a thin, tapered stiletto... gospearl handles and blades of adamantine acuity... stabbing at the hot, rare cutlets with feral desperation (all but Raf and the Captain having to lift breathers to eat).  Gasp... gobble... gasp again.  Blood and drool drip from their chins, shadows magnified by the lowness of the three suns - one rising, one setting. A crouching, leaping kangaroovian menial proffers coarser, blunter knives and Broonzy pokes at the grill, raises his mask to bite off half the meat and notices Glock at his side, watching.  He waves the knife...

          "Good! What's in this?"

Glock looks Turpin up and down before responding.  "Starts with camel. After that… don't have any distant camel relatives, do you, Sailor?"

Broonzy licks his fingers.  "Only what's in my stomach, now.  Not that I know of.   Turp, of course, he's a little of everything… never did know his folks. S'matter, Turp, everything and everybody is related, these days, galaxy full of the eaters and eaten."  Turpin's hesitant to confess his reason for abstaining - that Glock hasn't joined them might mean something.  Then again, maybe the monkey in the man has an aversion to meat... for all his cynical menace and ferocious walk, he'd rather gum something different.  Bananas?

The snaker forces himself to spear and bite off one of the kabobs and Glock seems to relax.  "Must have been easier, back then, in the Antedispersal days. Man was a man… and meat was meat. None of this delicacy about crossed bloodlines, making some choice that might offend…"

Broonzy shrugs.  "I've had my share of beef and horse and what's that crossbred thing between?  Turp?  Beefhorse... heef?..."

"Haven't a clue," he says, finishing off the kebab.  It's not bad, though undercooked, he decides he'll wait a few minutes before spearing another.

"Bourse!" Broonzy declares, proud of himself for the remembering…

          "Enjoy," says Glock, leaping to a signal from Raf Sihree.  Not a command nor even a gesture, more a raised eyebrow or a curl of the crimelord's lip, imperceptible to his guests.  "Boss seems to have worked things out with your demon-haunted Captain; once the Company agrees, we'll have you back in the air again, ridin' that white light with soys jingling in your pocket," he bucks the snakers up.  They're all cronies, now.  Munson approaches, glancing at his watch, handing over a couple of heavier, bulkier masks to Turpin and Broonzy.

"Situation-three breathers?" the latter wonders.  "Somethin' going on we ought know about…

          "It begins the end of Demons!" vows their tempest-browed Captain.  "Put these on, but do not be conspicuous.  Listen…"

Having received his orders from the heavy men, Glock has begun running more wires through and from the captive child and now approaches the two snakers with a pair of brainclips and a wide grin. Turpin sniffs, as if sensing something foul on the wind…

A distant siren begins to wail. Green clouds billow upwards on the horizon, gathering mass and strength as they swoop rapidly towards the villa. Sihree's retinue drop their meat and point…

"Bad air!" cries a dark, vulpine devil in a dark blue suit.

The round little man in red nearest him throws his knife into Sihree's wall.  "Fuckin' Arby! Methyards oughta be condemned, the way that cheap jammer runs 'em!"

"I'm outa here!" the wolfman snorts.

The clouds approach swiftly. Two wiseguys, noticing them, yank the wires that Glock has already attached to their earlobes off, waddling in the direction of Raf's shelter. Two others remain blissfully ignorant, anticipating, vicariously, the little girl's torture until plusmethane fumes punch through their thin, nonsituational breathers. Glock himself flees into the shelter, locking it behind him, leaving the souldrinkers gasping and flopping on the stone patio flooring.  The fettered child struggles, then slumps. Turpin and Broonzy press the breathers tighter against their faces…

"Won't save our eyes," Turpin said, "...or our skins…"

Broonzy points.  "But one of those hovercars will…"

They race towards the gangsters' cars, fumbling at doors to determine if any have been left unlocked. Captain Munson, having shoved a breather over the face of the mutilated child, rips the wires away and slings her over a shoulder.  Denied their repast, the souldrinkers briefly rise off the floor on one elbow, blink and stutter.  Sihree stares, fixated, on the clouds… the first greenish wisps of which have begun to pass over and through the villa, through the simglass of his shelter whose door crashes to the ingeniously tiled floor. When he turns towards the Captain, the gas has already begun to decompose his features…

          "The demon's end!" pronounces Munson.

"So hard to find loyalty!" the crimelord sighs, almost weeping.  The flesh on his face and bare arms is, in fact, beginning to liquify, showing the substance beneath… hard and horned… bony protuberances erupting from his skull!  "So, captain, was this a trap? A device, for Raf's demise?  Did you dare to think the gas would get rid of me?"

"No… only show you for what you are. This be the end of you…"

And Captain Munson raises a gatt whose beam is silver, not any ordinary blue. It binds with the green gas to enclose Sihree in a whirling, shimmering vortex that devours him alive from the ground up... black shreds flying away from the crimelord like flies shaken from a corpse. There is a final puff of foul, black smoke, and an old book bounces along the red stones where the crimelord stood only a few minutes ago, eating meat, conversing with his legions, preparing to savor the torment and destruction of innocence while presenting terms of retrieval for the Captain to transmit to his Company. The writing on its cover is occult, untranslatable… Munson picks it up and rips in half, a bodybuilder tearing apart a telephone directory. He flings one half outward and fires the laser at it… but misses… tosses the other half away, drilling it cleanly, causing the book to explode in a shower of cinders and burning ash. The green clouds thicken; Broonzy and Turpin slap at their burning flesh… Broonzy finds the key one of the gangsters has hidden behind the Regency licenseplate and they pile into a nearly new Pegasus IV hovercar, the Captain trying to follow, but prevented by two straps tethering the child to Sihree's devices.  The half of the book that was Raf Sihree throbs, twitches and then flips over, black flies erupting from its pages... one settles on the back of Turpin's hand and burns him, like a drop of molten metal.

Instead of drilling the remaining half-book, Munson shoots the fetters off the screaming, coughing child and carries her to the hovercraft. In an instant they're off, gradually outpacing the edges of the methane cloud.

"Guess this means there won't be any shortcuts to the Company's negotiations with the Spaceport, after all?"

          "No. I fear you boys are on your own, as is, of course, the Company," the Captain sighs.  "I do not believe, fortunately, that any of those men who escaped will be able to reach into the Guild, nor wish to, so you should be able to secure another assignment soon.  I have augmented your credit, a little, until that day… there's always traffic in and out of Doobydie…"

          "But…" Turpin worries.

"Do not worry overmuch about demons. They won't come after you," and the Captain rewards them with one of his rare smiles… full of teeth and, at this time, a terrible thing to behold.  "They'll be too busy fighting with each other over Sihree's territory…"

          "But you…" Broonzy says, from behind the wheel of the hovercar.

"I have already prepared for departure.  Raf Sihree did not lie, in at least one respect, the Company is notorious in making what you say, in the old tongue... scrape-the-goat... for their own negligencies so I have taken assignment as a courier, escorting a certain important package to Gamma Gaculi for Raytronics. All the papers signed.  I am example of the old custom," he smiles again, "the taking-daughter-to-work program.  If you'd be so kind as to leave us at the Passports office at the Spaceport…"

The plusmethane clouds have brushed only the fringes of Tao City's dome and left the Spaceport uncontaminated, save for a slight atmospheric tang that makes the staff, arriving and departing passengers and cargoliers rub their eyes and cough.  Most of them have come from (or passed through) much worse.  Broonzy, finding the gangster's hovercar amiable, remains behind the wheel, but Turpin follows Captain Munson to the counter, where his Company documents make the process of issuance a formality.  The bird to Gaculi's on time... tugging the mute, rescued child behind him, Munson saunters towards the Departures gate with Turpin following aimlessly behind…

"You were good boys," the Captain admits. "Any help you need with recommendation, I can be contacted through Raytronics! Ad valorum…"

He lifts his index and middle finger, making a v-sign.

"Ad valorum!" Turpin replies, though insincerely.

The captain presents his documents, surrenders two tickets to the Spaceport attendant and swaggers through the gate… the rescued child lingering, however, looking back at Turpin and speaking, now, in the voice of one already beyond the grave…

"He's going to kill me, you know?  Because he has rescued me, and I am his, and I will never live up to his expectations.  I was born with the curse of seeing, and knowing.  Demon fighters can't help themselves. First they see demons, then see everybody as demons… then they become the demons that they hate…"

Munson's leonine face, grim with determination, darkens; a strong, blond forearm thrusts out… his fist grasps her by the arm, pulling her behind the Departures curtain.  Turpin favors them with a criminal, embarrassed wave, turns on his heel and begins to make his furtive way back through the Spaceport.

 

Some jims ain't what they seem… some, they ain't anything at all! Trust ol' Al! There's ways… if you've got soys, and if the Regency leaves you alone… or if you are the authorities, juked up with or behind them…to make up a man out of lights or mirrors. Or create demons to counterfeit the details for you from the ground up… out of dust, metal... or a book. Maybe Captain Munson did understand Sihree wasn't the real problem, as Turpin explained it to me, maybe he just didn't care. In the end, ritual trumps results. Glock did alright by himself, by the way, for the demons behind Sihree needed a replacement, as I heard... though only for a while.

 

He was right about meat, too…I ain't against sinking a tooth into chihuahua cutlet or a nice poodle stew when it's on special, and that's with all of the hound in me. It's a dog-eat-dog universe! Just hell on them without cash or connections, but what's a jim to do?  His job, that's all... and after that, there comes the long forgetting.  The long ugly.  Which we're all headed towards and, all too often, in the second-class section...

 

 

 

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