Life Without Buildings
Sometimes the only right step to take is the one that's the most drastic.
The city of Shaim watched itself blazing in the night sky. Clouds of ice particles hung in the air above a suspensor shield, acting like a mirror to its inhabitants; a sky filled with fire and blue neon stars. A city at war.
A lofty old man approached the Café Infiné wearing a longcoat buttoned up to the collar and a tank crewman's suit underneath, padded for the rigors of high-speed chases. His head looked like a pinball set atop a tower block. Slicked back black hair and a toothless grin; a gangster's red tattoo ran over the pits of his eyes and the bridge of his nose. His shadow ran far across the street against the flickering orange glow of a burning brazier.
He sat down at a heavy plastic table and called for iced coffee with a thick milky sound in his voice.
"Do you see me?" he asked. The question was a kind of secret password among the Rebels.
The standard reply came in the form of a soft voice. "I see you."
A young woman with blonde hair tied back with blue cord slid into a chair next to him and placed a sheet of acetate on the table. It was creamy colored and inscribed with a blossom of dark calligraphy. "My name is DeVaughn," she told him. "My friend has given me this to show you. I come here unarmed. I'm here for your poetry."
The Poet with the gangster's red tattoo made a slow nod of his tiny head. He read the work on the acetate without a smile and nodded once more.
A thickly-furred canhali brought the iced coffee, poured it from a chitinous biologic slushing machine that looked like a centipede with a spout for a mouth. "Anything for your guest, Poet?" the canhali growled and left when the girl shook her head without setting eyes on the creature.
"Your friend tells a beautiful story, DeVaughn," the Poet said at last. That voice like a million creams layered over each other into one smooth syrupy flow.
DeVaughn felt blood rush to her face. "He'd be proud to hear you say so."
The old Poet raised the coffee bottle to his lips and sipped quietly, his brown, liver-spotted fingers quivering as he drank. The bottle made a rattling sound as he put it down. Then he asked her: "Where was your friend born?"
"Rain," she replied. A world so far away from here, yet it was the heart of industry in all known space. The Rain City Corporation was a spider in the stars, its web holding the Confederation of Worlds together. This Confederation was the cause of Shaim's war. The people didn't need the CW, but the CW couldn't survive without Shaim's minerals. Minerals that kept worlds like Rain in profit.
The Poet spoke. "He has never known a life without towers. Nature has a power of its own. Grass is more than a waving ghost in a holovision projection field." He moved his head to look at the awnings of the Café's roof. "It is his duty to see real nature, and to make others see the truth of it. The duty of a true poet."
He kept the writings and etched a rhyme of his own onto the plastic table with a thick-handled knife.
DeVaughn watched him scratch it out and felt the pressure of her own claws under her knuckles, muscles tightening to force them through the slits of skin in her palm then relaxing to let them withdraw. She had a long journey home across the city, across the Blood Line, and she knew she'd need to use those claws before she could get any sleep tonight.
When he finished, the etching read:
BEYOND MY LIFE THE TEARS WILL FLOOD
WASHED AWAY IN A RIVER OF BLOOD
Kevadec gazed into the mirror and smiled his yellow-teeth smile. His shock of white hair was growing longer at the back and a soft beard was growing on his pale white face.
"I need some more whisker gel, DeVaughn," he called back into the room.
DeVaughn simply replied, "I noticed."
He turned his head to look at her and saw how tired she looked in the haze of the morning, curled up in a large plastic canhali armchair with her knees brought up to her chin. She looked young and girlish in the gray light. "How did it go with the Poet? Did we get what we wanted?"
She shrugged and nestled herself deeper into the contours of the chair, taking pleasure in its closeness, its claustrophobic confinement. "He said your work was beautiful. And he said you had to confront nature, or something."
Kevadec laughed to himself. "I knew he'd recognize me, the mad old fool. He thinks I should destroy the city. As if it will end the war." His skin had lost color like the light through the old window. His city eyes staring through the far wall.
"What about you?" she asked, breaking the silence. "What do you think?"
"As long as there are Rebels and Confederates and thieves like us? This war will go on for-fucking-ever." A mosquito landed on his thick neck. He turned to the mirror and watched it bite and bleed him before pulling the insect off and squashing the thing between two thick fingers.
"Maybe the Poet is right," he whispered. "I have to open my eyes and find true nature. See life as it really is. This city blinds me."
He gazed out through the plastic window. The city truly did blind him. There were flowering tulip towers as far as the horizon and its reflection blotted out the sky. Everywhere there was city. He knew there were hills far out to the west, but the towers blocked them out. Shaim was everything. There had to be a way to open this dying city, let the fighters see what real beauty was.
"Do you see me, city? I see you."
He shook his head. Thinking like the Poet now. Show us beauty and we'll down our weapons. There was nothing Kevadec could possibly do to stop this war. It had raged for a decade and showed no signs of petering out. He could never stop it. But there were ways of upsetting the balance.
He molded the thought for a few seconds in his mind. It took on the shape of sabotage.
He looked back at DeVaughn, her eyes now closed in sleep. The journey to Café Infiné halfway across the city had stretched her spirit to the edge. He smiled his yellow-teeth smile. With what he had in his mind, she was going to need all the sleep she could get.
The war might go on forever, he thought. But it wouldn't be dull if he could help it.
Polito's warehouse was a library before the rebellion started. It housed a hundred thousand data cubes covering every possible topic of conversation. Daisen, the conglomerate with the monopoly on all the Confederation's extraterrestrial communications managed to save most of the data before the looters arrived. Now, the main building was no more than a scorched husk of concrete, and Polito lived in the cellars with her stacks of merchandise waiting to be moved.
"So what do you need for the job? Like, exactly." Polito was preparing the order on her black, fist-sized computer. Rocking back and forth on the legs of her chair, she reminded Kevadec of a delicate bird: so tiny and yet so damned resourceful. She ran nearly the whole of Shaim's black market on both sides of the Blood Line that divided the two factions.
Kevadec ran through the plan in his head and thought of what he would need.
"Two heavy barker guns. Four neural scramblers. A surgeon, and an electric computer to program it. And we'll need plans of some sort. Something with the neural pathways and the power connections. Preferably one fluid and one static contact map."
She nodded in approval as she tapped them in. "The subtle route," she observed with a thin-lipped, wry smile.
"Subtlety's always the best way."
Somewhere in the streets above, a firefight had broken out. The stutter of plasma guns and the unsteady clunking of running panzers across debris-ridden streets filled the empty silence of a cellar crammed with steel boxes.
There was a brief pause before the hand computer displayed the availability of the items he wanted. "The plans are a little hard to come by. The closest thing I can get hold of now is a map of the interior, but that's a common access file. I'll get someone to fuse the information for the fluid contact transmission now, but it'll probably take two days. The other stuff I'll have for you by dawn tomorrow. I'll contact you when the plans are through. Okay?"
She straightened out her stick legs and stood to meet him. Kevadec shook her tiny hand. "Thanks a lot. Oh, and I need some more whisker gel, too."
Polito frowned at the man and slipped the computer back into the pocket of her plastic armor-lined coat. She ignored his last request. "For what it's worth, Daisen and the Confederates are bosom buddies here. You're insane if you go up against them."
He stepped up close to her; his wide gray eyes matching her gaze, his warm breath wet against her porcelain skin.
"Maybe I am," he said. And above them a close explosion shook the cellar walls.
"You want us to do what?" DeVaughn laughed incredulously. Then she repeated the question again, punching every word slowly. "You want us to do what?"
Kevadec rubbed his tired eyes with a huge hand. "All I'm asking you to do is to help me get into the building. After that, I'll do all the work."
She shook her head, still with that witless smile on her face. "You're insane. Take out a Daisen computer? What with, an antimatter bomb? We'll get caught and we'll be killed. Publicly." Sitting in the canhali armchair, he could see her raising her back to defend herself.
He said simply: "That's the plan, but we won't get caught. It's going to be subtle. Elegant."
DeVaughn leapt out of the chair and left the room, tying her blonde hair back with the blue cord and striding lithely into the kitchen.
"What are you doing?" Kevadec called after her.
Her voice came through the door frame. "Cleaning."
He smiled. In the few years he had known her he had learned only three things about DeVaughn's personality. One of them was that whenever she became too frustrated, she had to clean something. He moved over to the door frame and leaned in.
She looked up at him, a rag clutched tight in her white-knuckle hand. "So how will this `subtle plan' work?"
"The Shaim Daisen Building holds the main communications computer for the whole planet. We cross the connections in the computer and the communications net will go haywire. All I'm doing is giving the Rebels a chance. Polito's agreed to provide a diversion. I've got all the equipment we need to get inside. We're two of the best thieves in Shaim. What are the odds we'll get caught? It's just like a normal break-in."
Kevadec casually told her the whole theory from start to finish, and, as she cleaned the kitchen, she listened to his every word. The more he talked about it, the more she wondered if going insane wasn't such a bad idea after all.
The city burned across the black sky. Shadows like empty pockets in the reflection.
DeVaughn and Kevadec scaled the walls of the Shaim Daisen Building; Kevadec with a set of strap-on climbing claws, DeVaughn with her implants, which included talons that extended through the balls of her feet. She was lithe like a cat up a tree, the claws digging hard into the rock of the tower.
Kevadec was struggling to keep up with her. The soft plastic of the climbing claws burned his wrists and he thought for a moment that gravity might drag him from the wall, leaving his hands and feet behind, stuck to the plascrete by five tungsten steel spikes. He had been through this feeling so many times, and burst enough blisters in his years, to know that wouldn't happen. He was strong enough to hold on, and it was his great strength that allowed him to follow her anywhere, even up this sheer wall.
Both of them could feel the hard plastic of the barker guns pressing their chests. The magnetic accelerator pistols were loaded with shock rounds that delivered a capacitated neural overload on impact. Designed by the Rain City Corporation for Daisen's intelligence agents, they had a reputation for being silent and utterly effective. Kevadec used them because in his line of work he couldn't afford to make a single noise.
She used two of the neural scramblers to disable the screamer nerves on the bioplastic windows and climbed inside. The orange fire glow of the sky cut slices through the air, dissecting a laboratory filled with tiny biologic, insect-like workers, connected by an array of thin tentacles of moving flesh to the bark-textured walls. Stepping into the laboratory was like landing on another planet.
DeVaughn looked at her partner. Behind his head, the insects were using sections of their dead to build new and better versions of themselves. Biologic machines had their own form of evolution.
He handed her a tiny soft contact lens and she placed it in her right eye.
The room made sense with the contact map on. She could see the order in the chaos of the room, as if before it was all out of focus and jumbled and now it was a landscape of branches and life. "Not quite what I expected," she whispered. Her eyes constantly refocused until she was used to the outlines displayed across her retina.
"I agree. This is one of the recycling workshops. We need to move in further." Kevadec's contact map was more sophisticated than his partner's. The plastic in the lens was fused with a crystalline formula that reacted to the precise frequency transmissions that Polito's people had organized to display a map over his vision based on his position within the building.
The rest of the building was like a living thing inverted. The rough, bark-like walls had a spongy, corkish feel when DeVaughn pushed her hand against them. Skinny gray tentacles writhed along the edges and corners of the dark corridors, emerging from soft, wet holes in the walls only to slide into others further along. They moved downward, along sloping passageways that were never meant to be used. The air smelled greasy, the way Kevadec imagined a swamp would smell. It was a silent void. Polito's diversion had taken away what little human security the building had. Alone in an artificial swamp.
The place the broad-shouldered man was looking for wasn't so much a room as a huge chamber. DeVaughn stopped short as she entered to take in the whole vision. The center of the room was a giant gray column of flesh encased in a transparent plastic cylindrical shield that ran from the corky floor to the dark shadows of the high ceiling. Tentacles wound around each other in tight ropes running from more orifices in the walls across the floor to the central column. She took care not to step on the nerve cords as she followed him inside.
Kevadec allowed himself a few seconds to take in the majestic wonder of the Daisen Computer before setting to work. The contact map melted out of deck plan mode and a schematic diagram of the neural pathways and trunks faded into his vision.
They moved according to the plan. The remaining two neural scramblers were fitted to the tactical trunks, two ropes of spiral gray flesh that writhed along the floor like sidewinder snakes until they felt each other's heat and then slithered back in the opposite direction. Once the scramblers were activated, the tentacles froze. Buckled and paralyzed, as if they had knuckled a nerve and dug in.
"Pass me the surgeon."
DeVaughn took a small plastic bag from out of her pocket and handed the thing to him. He opened the seal and let the small insect crawl out onto his huge palm. He jacked a microfiber lead that extended from an electric computer he had taped to his wrist into the creature and taught the surgeon to cut the pre-programmed points he wanted and cross-fiber the nerves.
"Feel nervous?" she asked him.
He nodded. "Never done this before. Hope it works." The surgeon worked like a leaf-cutter ant, slicing the muscle and nerves and pulling the fresh endings together with strong, chitinous mandibles. Then it sealed them together with its own bioactive spittle.
As he stood, Kevadec shivered. The silence roared in his ears. The chamber's temperature seemed to drop by tens of degrees. He turned to his partner and watched as she was frozen by the change.
DeVaughn felt thigh muscles spasm in warning, but she was too late. Ropes of fibrous nerves wrapped around her calves and caught her knees, fixing her in place.
More tentacles writhed out from the walls, coiling in around her shoulders, wrapping her arms and legs in muscle-bound data nerve, grabbing her up from the corky floor and pulling her back into the wall. She fought to grab the barker gun from her jacket, but the tentacles were too tight, tugging at her arms. She saw Kevadec wrapped in the same way, pressed against the plastic shield of the Daisen computer, and she froze in awe.
Kevadec smiled. His voice had become the liquid tones of the Poet, washing over her.
"Your friend can tell a truly beautiful story now, DeVaughn. Before I was blind and senseless. But I could hear the call. Now I see and feel everything. As if I have gained the universe and retained my soul. I see you, DeVaughn. Do you see me?"
DeVaughn didn't know how to react. His face had become contorted into a parody of the Poet's, the skin was stretched out into parchment, the features lost in the expanding smile. Yet the voice was so joyful, like the soft waters of a river, flowing; she could bathe in his noise. She closed her eyes and imagined the man as he was before. And listened to him as he was now. The combination was fantastic. Tears were swelling in her eyes.
"Beyond my life the tears will flood. Washed away in a river of blood," DeVaughn whispered. The tentacle ropes relaxed from her arms and face and carried her down to the floor; keeping some grip on her waist, refusing to let go completely. The floor was shaking beneath her feet.
"Here it comes," he said.
As he spoke, the pressure in her head became intense. Her ears filled with air and her skull burned with pressure. She opened her eyes and Kevadec was gone. The ceiling was caving in. Water dropped from the sky as if a plug had just been pulled, and she was stood under it all, waiting for the force to smash her to the ground.
Cracks widened and grew like liquid lightning across the sky. And light shone in, sun rays slipstreaming the racing tears as they rushed into the chamber. The Daisen computer in the center lost to the fluid strength of the fall.
She fought to activate the muscles that drew out the climbing claws from her palms and soles and threw herself into a panicked frenzy, tearing at the tentacles around her waist until she was free. Running through the blinding cascade; but it was hopeless. The water smashed DeVaughn against the bark-like walls and the light faded into wet, murky darkness.
"My god," she said to herself. "It's gone."
DeVaughn was on a lonely hill, her eyes squinting with the harsh sunlight as she watched the water pour through the remnants of the lost city. Kevadec's surgery had confused the computer so that the suspensor shield deactivated. All the ice that mirrored the war, having built up for nearly a year, fell on the city like a vertical tidal wave, melting as it dropped, crushing everything in its path. The force of nature was indeed strong.
Watching the devastation from the hill where she had washed up with the debris of the Daisen computer and countless pieces of plastic dispensable war machines, she was the only one left to see the truth of it the way the Poet wanted.
But DeVaughn was no Poet. She knew this planet and all it was now was a lifeless, lonely scrap heap. Somewhere in that was a beautiful story to tell, but Kevadec was no longer around to scribble it onto acetate.
Then she shook her head in realization. Of course, he didn't have to be there to describe it. It had already been described. "It's fucking beautiful, Kevadec. True poetry. And you wrote it."
Before she stood, DeVaughn took piece of snapped plastic armor and scraped away letters in the soaked dirt of the hill. Her last message to the ghost of Shaim as she stepped over the hill into the wilderness was one sentence long.
I SEE YOU.
Ridley McIntyre (Fraujingle@aol.com) was born in London, but now lives in New Jersey with his fiancée. He has been writing SF since the age of 8, but took a brief hiatus in 1997 while exploring the potential of growing up. He plans to do this with grace, having many tales to tell other people's grandchildren.
InterText stories written by Ridley McIntyre: "Boy" (v2n2), "Seven" (v2n6), "Mercy Street" (v3n3), "Nails of Rust" (v3n4), "Monkeytrick" (v4n4), "Ghostdancer" (v5n5), "Life Without Buildings" (v8n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Ridley McIntyre.