by Stewart Wilson
I can still taste her as I walk the streets, the morning making the cloudless glow weakly behind the rooftops. It's intoxicating, firing my brain like a three-day Rez bender with none of the RSI. The synaesthesia is weak but present. A passing car kicks up the scent of lilacs.
I don't go home. Not yet. Can't face it. Instead, I head for the only person in this benighted city who I know will be awake. Jenny. Another mage, the only one I know will still be awake and the only one I trust. We're both not from around here, and there's a certain appeal in talking shop and drinking proper tea with the same person. I don't care if she is English, she's the closest I can get to family here.
Sure enough, she's awake. Rick is there as well, four days of stubble on his chin. Someone's been kipping on a sofa for the past week. Rick isn't too bad for a crystal-waving hippy, but he's not the company I was wanting.
We're sat down before she mentions anything. It gives me a couple of seconds to get the words straight in my head.
"Someone got lucky tonight." Rick, unlike Jenny, has never heard of tact. "You and Caitlin finally working things out, I take it?"
"He's certainly glowing," she agrees.
I swallow, mouth dry. "I wasn't with her."
Both of them shoot me a look. Jenny's is more a glower. "Broken up or playing around?"
"Neither. Not really. It'll have turned into both by lunchtime."
She doesn't soften.
"She wasn't normal. The woman, tonight. There was something about her. I just couldn't help myself."
"Define what about her." Jenny treats everything like a science, including her magic. She knows the thirty-seven secret names of God better than I know my phone number, and she also knows precisely when to use each and every one of them.
"Something... ethereal. Must have been some perfume or something."
"No." Rick's not looking at me, glaring down towards a crystal in his hand. "There's a mark on him. Been up to anything recently?"
"Fuck no. Do I look daft? Not with the Council after me... shit, don't tell me they dropped a succubus on me."
Jenny snorts. "Like it'd take a succubus to get a horny geek into bed."
"Something like, then. Must be. Bastards have found me."
Rick shrugs, leaning forwards. "Could well be. And if they have, you're up shit creek."
I slump down in the chair. There's a cup of tea on the table in front of me. I take a sip, still thinking.
"Go home. Get some sleep. See Ian. He'll be able to put you in touch with a shaman or something, someone who can tell you where to look."
"And what do I tell Caitlin when I get home?"
It's Jenny's turn to shrug. "If it is the Council, she's probably watching some spirit-slut fucking your brains out right now. What more can you tell her? 'It was a ghost, it wasn't real'? You know that isn't going to work."
"Yeah." More tea. More tea makes everything better. I glance at my watch, nine in the morning. "I need a bloody drink."
"So would I if I'd just fucked my like, you stupid taffy git. But Rick's right, see Ian. He probably doesn't know anyone who can help you keep your girl but he can probably help you hit the people that did it."
Nothing about that sounded like an inviting proposition.
* * *
Up early. Can't have slept more than a couple of hours in that battered chair, too scared to go back to the flat. I could patch in to the webcams, see what I can find, but there's the risk of seeing Caitlin's face as she smashes up all of my stuff. Fortunately, thinks the pragmatic side of my brain I'm wearing the really expensive, powerful stuff. More processing power than your average supercomputer. It's no comfort at all.
Nine in the morning and Ian's awake. A combination cultural hub and sensation junky, he only sleeps about once a week. He's always good for something to fight off tiredness, usually the same stuff that's coursing through his own system at the moment.
"Ian, I need a hand." No time for fucking around with pleasentaries.
"Fuck, man. You look like you've been at it all night and your dick's dropped off when you got out of bed."
"Will people please stop telling me that I look like I've been having sex?"
"Calm down, will you." He takes a seat on a pile of old books and I do the same.
I roll a cigarette. "Sorry. Long night."
"So what hand do you need from me?"
"I need to find a shaman. Don't tell me you don't know one, you know every weirdo, mad scientist, occultist, and magician in the state. And while I'm alive enough to remember, whatever you've got to keep me awake. Intelligence enhancement would be a bonus."
"No can do on the last. Jacks got raided, she kept making something long enough for it to get illegal. She's out of production until she can get half her stuff back or make some more."
"So you told her to play nice with IB?" IB, Iron Balls. So named because he sketched out wiring diagrams for his chromed limbs with a pencil between his teeth. While still in his hospital bed from the crash that left him quadriplegic. Too much Stirling and Gibson when he was a kid, but he's definitely one of the better people to know.
"Too true. A shaman. Fuck, who do I know is a shaman? There's a new girl. Ailsa. I'll give her a call. But you reallly do look like you need to crash."
I finish the cigarette. "I sleep when I die and not one second before. The way things are going, that could be tonight."
"Sounds like a long story."
"I don't know yet, but you're not hearing it until it's done. Afraid you're remaining a bit-part for now."
"I get your point. Coffee?"
"Better fucking believe it."
* * *
Ailsa's new to everything, or it certainly seems that way when she wanders in. The state of Ian's appartment — papers and books resting on a carpet grey from old cigarette ash and don't ask about the tables — shocks her. That doesn't bode well.
She's short, ash-blond hair cut business-like. Doesn't look like a shaman. Doesn't look like much of anything. Sticks out like a sore thumb in the company I've been keeping recently. Ian leads her through then goes to make yet more coffee.
"Hey," she says, taking me in stride. "Ailsa." She offers a hand and I stare at it for a moment before remembering that handshaking is more than just networking jargon.
"You're not from here, are you?" She frowns.
Christ, some people can't see the world in front of them somehow becomes "Cardiff. Wales. That bit of Britain that you daft buggers don't know isn't England. On the side, not on the top, that's Scotland. Which is also not bloody England."
She retreats a bit. If she flinches from me introducing myself she's going to be in a lot of trouble fairly soon. "You look like-"
"Jimmeny H. Christendom on a semi-automatic pogo stick! I know, believe me. Which is why I asked Ian to give you a call."
"Why? What do you want from me?"
"A favour. One time. Fair trade, do this for me now and you get a favour in return. You're a shaman, something I need right now. I'm an infomancer, information and computers dance for me. Something you might need at some point later."
Ian sets the coffee down. "It's okay. Ewen's an old friend. He's good for promises like that. If he doesn't keep one, he knows I'll shoot him."
"Bloody Americans, all the same."
She interrupts before we can get into any proper banter. "But... what favour?"
"Something happened last night. Whatever I was with wasn't human." Ailsa gives me a look that could crinkle paint. "That isn't an excuse I can tell my girlfriend. Some fucker set me up and I want to hurt him, her, or them."
"And in return for helping you, I get a favour."
"Yeah. Here." I hand her an SD card, enhanced just a little. "Got my profile, vcard, you name it. Plug that into something and I get a priority buzz on my smartphone. The kind I can't ignore. It works with anything that communicates two-way, so anything above a TV remote should do. One use only, but you can save the number if you want."
"All right. But I can't do it here. Too much crap in the air." A frown at the overflowing ashtrays. "Got a car?"
"I don't usually need one."
"There's a forest about half a mile out of town. I'll meet you there." We finish our coffee while hashing out details. It's a long walk to the forest, but the air will do me good.
* * *
Chanting. Smoke. Too much in the air to make it all out. She may not look like much, but Ailsa can put on a good show for the spirits. It's my job to sit in the middle of a circle of fresh-cut branches and to try relaxing. It isn't easy, I can't stop my brain working, even though I do give it my best shot. Then there's a moment when I wonder what Ian put in the coffee and I wake up in the middle of the Overmind.
A couple of Religimon play around the base of a tie-dyed tree while flocks of ankhs swoop in Hamiltonian networks across the sky. Glowing mathematical concepts rut like animals, their bastard theorem offspring hunting bored undergrads to suck the fluid of proof from their minds. The Overmind is concept given form, and I know some really fucking bizarre forms.
Ailsa looks much the same as she does in the real world, both of us with a faint halo that serves to define what is Us and what is Them, our ultimate disconnection from the universal consciousness. We can visit, but not stay. She points to a blue line, extending out from my heart. It streaks towards the kind of city Dali would have come up with after a four-day drinking session with Escher. The mind of the city. I'm not surprised.
I grab a baby theorem and plug my palmtop straight in. It twists along with the space around us, letting us walk miles with a single step. I let it go before we hit the insane buildings that unfold in front of us. I wouldn't leave a theorem there, not unless I could find a university. It'd do better in the wild.
The cord leads us through narrow streets that twist and turn, buildings reforming as soon as they get out of our sight. One looms large ahead of us, a fancy new appartment block close to the heart of the city. Whoever sicced the succubus on me, she's rich. And given the way that the air feels like treacle here, she's probably with the council. The building looks enough like its real world counterpart for me to recognise it. We could almost walk right in there. Just as I'm about to Ailsa signals to me; we're out of time.
* * *
I step out of Ailsa's car a few streets from the building I've come to think of as a target. I roll up and light without thinking. A couple of kids give me a look, probably wonder if I'm dealing. These are just tobacco, but the number of people over here who don't believe that scares me.
Smartphone on, I patch in to the home cameras. I need to know if Jenny was true, if Caitlin's heard or if all this was a more subtle warning. She's in the flat. The place is a total wreck, TV smashed in and everything torn apart. Fuck. A FedEx envelope with a blank DVD case right next to it. Double fuck. I flick back. She's screaming at the cameras, calling me every name she can think of. It feels like a bullet through my chest. Numb, I find a wall to rest against while I smoke.
This fucker tried to wreck my life, I think. And succeded wonderfully. All to send me a lesson. Another cigarette, hands working on pure muscle memory. Click of my lighter before I know what I'm doing. Should have called IB and wrecked the fucking place.
I walk through the door and there she is, the girl from last night. Sensation and emotion floods me, overloading my brain as it interferes with everything else. There's the same feeling of wrongness, and I focus on that.
"You're expected." She shows me to an elevator and gets in the car, smiling provocatively. I want to punch her in the throat, do something violent to release the building tension, but I couldn't. Every time I look at her I see us last night, viewpoint moving as my Cartesian theatre shifts like the camera in a bad porn film. I can't hurt her.
She leads me to an appartment and I follow like she's dragging me on a leash. Through the door and she closes it behind me. The place is huge. Over by one wall is a desk twice the size of my bed. Behind it is the succubus' double, dressed for a good day in court. Severe hair tied back tight, precise glasses, sharp red suit. The drapes and walls are decorated with symbols I last saw at Jennys' between mouthfuls of tea. This is the target.
No plan. No weapons. No support. What've I got left, bad language? Worth a shot. "I hope you're not after a repeat performance. The secretary look doesn't do anything for me."
She smirks, cruelly. "You certainly did seem to warm to my pet."
"Making her in your own image? Vanity, what a sin. Though I guess you did resist the obvious improvements." I want some anger. I want a reaction. I want something, because that means there's a chink and I can play with that chink.
A nicer smile this time. "What's to improve? No, don't bother answering."
Shit. Played the wrong card, she's too sure of herself. An idea strikes, but I should have been preparing in the elevator rather than worrying about the mad rush of blood to my crotch.
"Mind if I smoke? No, don't bother answering." I light up and pull my smartphone.
"Nice try. The whole room's in a Mercurian septagram. No communications for you, little man."
I tap away, swearing under my breath. She's right. Nothing in the room can get out. I take a moment to breathe in the smoke and my head clears.
"What's so important? Trying to tell the world about your revenge on the person who gave you the time of your life last night?"
"I've had better." Bored. Disaffected. And there's the chink. That's why she's after me. She's one of the Council's lackeys, brought in to fuck with people like me. Sex as a weapon. And she's proud of it.
"Put it away, Ewen." She chuckles, "there's nothing you can do. Your darling girlfriend saw my edited version, with all the highlights that never quite happened. Give it up, put it down. If you don't move against us again, this is the last any of us will hear of it."
"I don't think I can do that." Download complete. Fucking A. "The human brain gives off low-level EM radiation, result of all those neurons firing. Sensitive apparatus can read that radiation, Van Eck-phreaking the brain. Which, quite frankly, is a bit pointless."
Her eyes narrowed, the not-her moving to grab the computer away from me. I caught it's wrist in a painful hold and carried on, typing one-thumbed. "Because if you can broadcast on the right frequencies, you can fuck with the brain. That's a lot more useful. Three guesses what this fucker in my hand can do?"
The succubus vanished in a hail of splinters. All the emotional confusion, the hurt and shame at seeing Caitlin's reaction, the maelstrom of pain and lust and tiredness and hate, all downloaded into this woman's head. Ten times over.
"Leave me the fuck alone."
I turn, lighting a cigarette from my emergency pack with shaking hands before heading for the door.