Ridley McIntyre

1. Thomas Morrison.

"So that's it, Tommy. That's the end."

Her face disappears from the screen, angular features flickering to black. But the trace of her is still there; a two-second imprint on the tube. I feel myself trailing my fingers over the lines of her nose and chin as they fade in front of me; see my blue reflection in those Sony eyes. She's gone now.

The rage erupts in my stomach like a bursting ulcer, burning pain forcing me back from the vidfone screen, and I'm looking for something plastic and unbreakable to throw. The coffee cup she gave me looks the most likely missile, and I scream out "Stupid Bitch!" as I hurl it straight through the open rectangle of the living room window.

Looking down from the window, I can just manage to see the white cup turn to a speck as it melts into the dark shadows eighty floors below me, a falling angel in a London Dustzone owned and run by the local company, Lambs Conduit, after which the whole neighborhood is named. The red midday sun burns my wet face and I have to go back inside again.

Through the walls I can hear Jayne's headboard smacking a dull, arrhythmic beat accompanied by the grunts and moans of sexual pleasure. Jesus, I wish she'd stop sometimes. It reminds me how hard it is to find love in this 'plex.

The sun has lifted my brain out of my head and I find I'm just doing things without realizing I'm doing them, with no reason why. I'm going back to the gray vidfone and pressing the PLAY button on the answering machine. Hers is the only message I've saved. Her face flickers onto the screen, that rough shag of chestnut hair cut into a bob around her ears.

"Uh, hi, Tommy. I really don't know where to begin."

Tracing the lines of her face again with rough fingers, I can hear the whisper of my own voice talking to that high-definition image.

"Just start at the beginning."

A week earlier I'm in this place called Chevignon in Lambs Conduit. The large worker's bar reeks of bad business. Couriers from the Outzone wearing stolen Lambs Conduit gray-blue worksuits do their best to see as many people as they can, desperately trying to move pills, microsofts, cheap digital watches and whatever else they can fit in their jackets.

I'm drinking Tiger beer with my spar, Falco, when one of the couriers takes the third seat at our wrought iron table. The glow from the fuzzy orange strip lights above us makes his skinny face look almost healthy.

"Namaste. How are you doing?" he says, grinning broadly like he's known us for years. "Amber Roy." A powerful introduction.

"Not so bad," Falco replies. "How do you feel?" Falco's sarcasm is so thick I could almost reach out and touch it.

"No worries," the salesman says. "Listen. I've got this great deal for you. You seen these?"

Like a TV evangelist on one of Disney Guild's religion channels, the Salesman pulls a sleight-of-hand trick, making a clear plastic ziploc bag of brown and yellow lozenge pills appear out of thin air into his moving hand. He throws it instantly to Falco, who catches the bag in his left hand with lightning-fast Italian reflexes. It's as if the salesman was just guiding the bag to the right buyer in one simple, fluid motion.

"What's it called?" Falco says. I sip from my beer bottle.

"Chloramphenildorphin-5. The Outzoners call it Primer. Great for getting you up in the morning and keeping you there. The best thing about it is that that bag is running at less than half price. I've just cut a big deal with the Sodha roughriders and I've got some left over that I have to get rid of. So I put them in bags of ten and I'm letting you have them at the price I got 'em for. See Phil over there?" He takes a breath to point to some guy at the other end of the bar, past the empty slampit, who may be another courier, but the salesman is trying to make out that he's another buyer. "He just bought five packs off me. Five, man. I mean, this is going great, by the time I get out of here, they'll all be gone."

Falco hands the bag back. He keeps away from chemicals, preferring microsofts if he can afford them.

"Hey, but I can tell you just want to see what else I've got before you make your final decision. I see you both have NST plugs? Excellent. Well, you'll love this."

Falco's face shines when he sees the jet black microsoft in the salesman's hand. He looks like his mind's already hooked on the thing, and the two tiny Neuro-Sensory Transfer sockets placed in his skull just behind his right ear are calling to him: "Feed me, feed me." The salesman's grin grows wider as his confidence jumps up another notch. And I watch the two go through the ritual of haggling a good price for the cleanest drug in the world.

Her face is pained. Like something off-camera has pierced her flesh and is slowly twisting a danse macabre through her nervous system.

"I felt like I knew you the first time I met you, Tommy. You have this way of opening your eyes so your whole soul pours out of them and touches me. That's what you did outside the bakery. I didn't know what was going on then. I wish I didn't know now."

"Yeah," comes my voice again. It's sort of disconnected, like it isn't my voice, but a damn good impressionist's. "I wish I never knew, too."

Outside the bakery. In a back alley not far from the monorail station at the cross where the Paddington to Islington New Road meets the Gray's Inn Road. On my route to the huge fortress building at Euston where I work, I stop to ghoul at what looks like a traffic accident. There is a company ambulance, rentacops and a small crowd of local bakery workers all milling around the scene. I get in closer and it's Falco.

His arms have been sliced laterally, across the middle of each forearm, and then down deep in diagonals towards each wrist. With cuts like that he can't have lasted long. A Lambs Conduit medic flashes some snapshots for the local rentacops while another one dodges the blood as it streams out into the road. Flies buzz around his head, competing for the sweetness of his eyes.

"Name's Lyle," she says to me. Her skin is too clean and soft for a Dustzoner; the clothes she wears -- black baggy bermuda shorts and a short- sleeved Hawaiian shirt with popper buttons down the front -- and the attitude she carries are 100 percent pure Outzone. She's been standing next to me all the time, but my mind has been on that corpse.

There's a Federal I.D. tag pinned to the pocket of her shirt with her videostat hardcopied onto it and the name now has meaning. Mandy Lyle, Federal Department of Investigations. Her I.D. tag shows her serious face, knowing that the people she has to spy on must never see it. Lyle is a fake, an applejack in the Dustzone. Trouble. And this fact is kicking me in the face, telling me to stay away. But I'm ignoring it. Fighting it.

I look for some sign of recognition, but all I can see is my own twin reflection in the permanent stare of her Sony Guild cybernetic eyes; blue cusps which fit neatly into the cheek and brow bones over her eye sockets. Lyle has a cold face. Poised, angular and clean.

Those eyes are digging into me. Thermographic vision watching my heart thump, and my stomach churning at the mixed stench of fresh bread and fresh death. I emulate her face, hoping that those eyes can't see what I feel. That I want her like love at first sight and I've only known her for a minute and a half.

"Did you know him?" she asks me.

I turn back to face him and I nod, letting my facade drop, my face scrunches up with memories of Falco. I try to remember him as I knew him, rather than this blood-spattered stiff that's crumpled in the doorway of some Lambs Conduit bakery.

"He was a good friend of mine. Falco Batacini."

High above us all, a monorail Sprinter speeds past, bound for Tottenham Court Points. Four green-jumpsuited medics lift Falco out of the doorway and into the back of an ambulance.

"You don't exactly seem cut up about it."

"I worked with him at the processing plant. Running loaders and stuff. You need NST jacks to manipulate the exoskeletons. You have to be careful how much you lift. People die of sensory feedback all the time. Fact of life. But you're an applejack. You wouldn't know."

I can sense her voice tighten after I call her an applejack. Those born in the Secure Zones take that as a pretty major insult these days. Maybe I meant it that way.

"Looks like suicide, doesn't it?" she says, as if I did it. "What would you say if I told you that's the twelfth body we've found like that in the last three days? All with that L-shaped cut in their wrists. I might need to talk to you again. Have you got a vidfone where I can reach you?"

I look back to her, standing with her back against the wall, my haggard loader's reflection in the blue shine of her enhanced eyes. "Sure," I reply. And she taps it into a Sony hand computer the size of her Federal I.D. tag.

2. Falco Batacini.

"Well, this is the last time I'll use this number. The last time. Life doesn't get any better than last night, Tommy. It just doesn't."

She takes a breath, and as she does so, I reach for the pause button. There's a bottle of tequila hidden inside my brown sofa. It has a hole in the corner where the stitching has come apart and I can keep things like that where no one can find them if my apartment ever gets searched. The rentacops like to do that sometimes. Dawn raids. If they get a tip off that someone's hiding something in one apartment they hit the whole block. Keeps the rest of us on our toes.

As a loader, I'd get canned for possession of alcohol. It dulls the nerves and interferes with the NST jacks. Doesn't stop me from keeping some, though. I only drink when I'm depressed, and I know that alcohol only makes it worse, but that's usually exactly what I want. Right now, I want to be as depressed as I can get. And then some. I want to feel like Lyle.

And Falco.

The London Outzone has the kind of close, rotting atmosphere that scares the shit out of us Dustzoners. I'm in there on some kind of mission, I guess. I need to find out what happened to Falco two days previous. It's like a deranged curiosity I keep inside me that takes over from time to time. Right now, it's in complete control.

Soho. The Year of the Rat. I ask one of the streetkids where the Blue Cross is and they laugh in my face. One of them looks as though he wants to bleed me with the hunting knife he's twiddling between his fingers. He has wild eyes, with those glaring wide pupils that the speed junkies at Lambs Conduit have. I can imagine the slicing edge of that blade, all nine inches of it, running along the skin of my gut, letting my insides spill out for the rest to gawk and laugh at. I must be oozing with fear. But the others must think I'm too stupid to even bother with, and the threat ends when I finally round the corner of the next block.

And there in among the frozen death throes of a decaying building sits the Blue Cross.

Nothing like I imagined it. In the Outzones of New Atlantic City, the local teams police the streets and keep the areas safe from harm. They charge a hefty price for their services, but it's worth it all. With that, you get good bars, nightclubs, shops that sell stuff made in the Outzones -- what they call shadow industry -- and a semi-decent cycle-rickshaw taxi service. Here in Thames Midland, it's only just starting to pick up. The London Outzone is anarchic, a playground for the roughrider teams, with maybe a dozen or so neutral places scattered around. The Blue Cross, a steamer's bar built in the ground-floor ruins of an unfinished tower of the Outzone, doesn't even have a roof. This is one of the few places left where body armor isn't essential. Anything heavier than a fistfight gets blasted outside by the bar security's riot weaponry. It's one of those places where you feel safe, but scared, like being in a Metropol rehab cell.

I'm here because Falco mentioned it once. Out of the two of us, I'm the one who never leaves the Dustzone. He was always the adventurous one. I stayed home and watched TV or drank at Chevignon or sometimes wasted some ration credit on the "Raid Port Said" game at the FLC games arcade. Never leave the Dustzone. Yet I'm here. Having snuck out of the Dustzone past heavy security after curfew hours and dodged some roughriders, I'm at the Blue Cross.

Striding over to the tiny bar area, past the slampit crowded with long-haired raja steamers and a parade of twenty rupee kittens, I pay for a lukewarm bottle of a local variant of Elephant beer, called Rhino. They make the stuff in the cellar here, the barboy tells me, and bottle it in Paddington, which affiliates the place with the Sodha roughrider team.

"I'm looking for a courier who knows something about microsofts," I say to the barboy.

"What?" The sound system by the slampit is deafening at this end of the bar.

I pass over twenty marks. With that, he can probably buy himself a week's worth of kittens.

"Microsofts," I remind him.

The barboy points at one of the many clustered circular wrought iron tables on the other side of the slampit, populated by rajas in leather roughrider's outfits and Hawaiian shirts with fading prints. "Over there. Ask for Amber Roy Chowdhury."

I thank him and push through the jumping rajas in the slampit. Chowdhury's companions see me coming and vacate the table, moving just far enough to give us some privacy, while keeping close enough to protect their man. My mind is scrambling for the lines I rehearsed to myself on the way out here. I know I can't afford to fluff this one up. Not on their territory.

"Namaste. Remember me from the Lambs Conduit Dustzone? Two nights ago. Dealt a microsoft to my spar."

He nods. I can see sweat breaking out between the lines on his forehead. Could be the heat, I tell myself. Or it could be him.

"I want one, too. Same price."

The look in his eyes as we cut the deal leaves a hard ball in the pit of my stomach. Walking back to Lambs Conduit I wonder which of us looked more scared.

I press PAUSE again. Lyle continues in her broken voice.

"Of course, you don't really understand, do you? I went back to see Nukie again. Routine procedure. He told me everything. Now I'd better tell you..."

PAUSE. I take a swig from the bottle. I've had too much already, but I can't stop now.

"Yeah, yeah. Spit it out, Lyle, you stupid bitch. Run through the whole routine again. You came here and I showed you the microsoft. You said that Falco never had his, but some of the others were well-known microsoft users. So you took me to see Nukie, thinking he could solve everything, but all he did was make you curious. How could you, you stupid bitch?"

We are standing in the burned-out shell of the lift when she notices the sprayderm patch over my hand. It covers a stapled gash that runs along the life line of my left palm.

"Where'd you get the cut?" The concern in her voice is overlaid with suspicion.

"I got stressed out and smashed a cup against the wall of my apartment. It was stupid. The guy a few doors down from me's a doctor friend of mine. He patched it up for me. Only charged me half price."

She takes hold of the hand and runs her clean, soft index finger over the sprayderm. "Not bad."

"Yeah, but it means I can't afford to eat for two weeks."

The lift stops on 57 and we wrench open the concertina doors. The corridor reeks of rotting vomit and the floor, sticky with old piss, tugs at the soles of my trainers. Lyle tries to reassure me by telling me this typical of a block in the Outzone. It makes me feel lucky to be born a Dustzoner.

"At least it still has some electricity," she reminds me.

"Probably tapping it from the monorail lines," I reply to myself.

She agrees with an audible sigh.

"Bet your place ain't like this."

She shakes her head and laughs softly. "No. Tottenham Court Points ain't the greatest Secure Zone in the world, but it's better than this. I couldn't live here. Not on my own, like Nukie. I can't even handle the SZ alone, sometimes. I still live with Sean. My brother."

"Tell me more about this Nukie, then. Where's he from?" My curious side takes over the conversation again.

"He's one of you," she replies. "His father worked for South Shields. And his father's father, and ever was. He'd be there now if Sony Guild hadn't closed the Dustzone down. He freelances for deckers, building cyber decks for them and stuff like that. He's bound to have something that can read your microsoft. Then we can find out if there's a connection, see what it was that made someone want to kill your friend and make it look like suicide."

We get to the old-fashioned door, and it's already open, with a crack of orange sunlight seeping through the gap. The Geordie's voice beckons us in.

Nukie's a tower all by himself, with long scraggly hair and broken teeth set in a thick-lipped maw. Sitting himself down in a big red velour armchair that's been heavily slashed across the back by what could have been a scalpel blade, surrounded by his Aladdin's Cave of electronic circuitry and plasterboard that forms a bizarre silicon/plastic/wire collage around his living room, he assumes his designated role of Rat King. In a way, he kind of reminds me of Falco, and I feel I can get along with him easier that way.

Lyle gets straight to the point, handing over the microsoft. "Can you tell us what this does? I need a full schematic rundown. Any hidden data it may contain, subliminals, anything that'd make anyone want to kill for it."

"Ooh. This is something to do those suicides, isn't it?" He plugs the smooth black cylinder into the side of a small box black box fitted with some sort of pedal switch and jacks a thin blue lead he finds lying on the floor between the box and a Fednet PC so brutally customized that it's barely recognizable. The image on its blue screen is a Guild Profile with my Videostat on it.

Nukie instantly senses my apprehension. "Relax, matey. I ran a go-to on you as soon as my camera could get a good shot of you in the lift. No voodoo here. So, do I call you Tom, Tommy, or Thomas?"

"Tommy," I reply.

The Geordie offers us seats of upturned cardboard boxes set amongst the detrius. He directs most of the conversation at Lyle, but occasionally he gives me a wink to see if I'm still awake.

"I hear you found number thirteen this afternoon. Unlucky number where I come from. Ruth White on Disneynews reckons there's a psychopath on the loose. She's nicknamed him the L-Razor."

Dustzoners labor under the misapprehension that Outzoners use TV's as fireplaces, and I'm about to say something to that effect when Lyle cuts in on me.

"Ruth White's just a computer-generated digitized image, what the fuck would she know about it?"

Before then I was one of the gullible millions who believe that Ruth White and the other Disneynews anchors are actually real people. Now I know better. Television is just living proof that half-truths are more dangerous than lies.

Nukie clears the blue screen and keys in a few more commands before pressing the pedal switch on the black box. The screen lights up with strings of what looks like endless random alphanumerics in a chaotically aesthetic pattern.

"What the hell is that thing?" Lyle asks him.

Nukie strokes the metalwork of the black box proudly. "It's a military squid. A Superconducting Quantum Interference Detector. Used for reading fire-control programs in combat machines. It's good for other stuff, too. I usually use it to check people's viruses for bugs before they run them against anything. The housing's my own, and I've made a few small improvements. I'd sell it back to the MGAF, but I like life. Fella two floors down's gonna finally wake up one of these mornings and find that his octaver effects pedal's missing. Serves him right for letting me look after his guitar in the first place."

He turns and reads the random data on the screen. After scrolling through over twenty screens of symbols his pensive face turns to us.

"I think I'll have to get back to you on this one, Lyle, it's pretty much got me stumped."

"What's wrong with it?" Lyle asks him.

"Nothing wrong with it, per se. It's just different. It's written in MAX, like any normal microsoft, but this seems to be some sort of dialect of the programming language. Like American English for computers. I don't know. It's slick, I can tell you that. It's called Seven. Puts pretty filters through your senses, but beyond that, you'll have to wait. It's imported, no one here could manufacture something this slick."

Lyle and I sit forward on the edges of our boxes. "So what do you want to do?" she asks him.

"Well, I'll put some feelers out, see if anyone knows the dialect. Until then, I can run it through a codebreaker program and try and compile some kind of lexicon for it. I've never done it before, but it's an idea I've been working on for a while. If it works I might be able to translate it myself."

We leave Nukie's flat in silence. Both of us know that we've gone to see him and we've scraped the iceberg. But, try as I might, I just can't make myself believe that Falco was killed over the number seven.

3. Mandy Lyle.

"I saw what happened to all those people, Tommy. It was like a hallucination, completely taking over the senses. Some of them survived, you know that? Some actually carried on beyond that. The ones with the strongest wills. But that's a high, Tommy. You can't get higher than that. Never."

My heart's being swallowed by a pit of guilt in my stomach, I can feel it tearing at the flesh of the fast-beating muscle, strangling it into submission. I stumble down into my sofa, throat gasping for air, guilt like a fat demon sitting on my chest. I'm going to die. I know I'm going to die. Just like Falco, and Sean, and Amber Roy Chowdhury.

"Just what the hell happened at that arcade, Tommy? I just can't believe you could do something like that."

The message just keeps playing. In my drunken stupor, I roll from the sofa and try to switch the vidfone answering machine back onto PAUSE, like it will save my life or something. It won't. It can't.

I know now, that even if I live through this heart-pounding episode, I won't be able to live long with the events of the last five days sitting there like some mutant fetus of ours on my conscience, waiting for the time to enact its own Oedipal desires. It's all my fault. Everything.

The door buzzes angrily for the seventh time as I get there and punch the LOCK stud. Wrenching the thing open, the first thing I see is the blue- chrome image of a sleepy Thomas Morrison in Lyle's Sony Guild eyes. Her cheeks are all puffed up and she makes one last spit into the corridor before I invite her in.

She's crying. I remember watching an old movie on the TV once about someone who had cybernetic eyes and couldn't cry through them. Instead, the tear-ducts are re-routed into saliva glands, and you have to spit.

"Can I use your bathroom?" she asks me.

I point her in the right direction and she follows my finger. Pulling the glue from my eyelids, I head into my cluttered room to pull some gray canvas jeans on. I walk back into the living room and she's there, looking utterly lost.

"Lyle, it's three in the morning."

"I brought you a present." She offers me a plastic coffee cup.

I just look at her straight. I'm trying to use some kind of empathy, to feel her own problem, so she won't have to tell me. But I'm a man, and men aren't so good at that kind of thing.

Her voice is broken, croaking like a misused engine. "Sean's dead, Tommy."

"Your brother?" I can feel a tiny part of her emptiness in her stomach as she nods. There's a few seconds of pure silence, and I'm screwing my eyes up, too, holding the tears back.

"I got back from work and found him in his room. He had his modeling scalpel in his hands. There was blood everywhere. I puked for a while, I couldn't stop puking, then I was able to check the wound. There was no forced entry, and no one had been at the door, I checked with security. But that L was there, Tommy. It was there, on both arms, just like the others. So I checked the jacks on his neck. I found this."

She hands me the smooth black cylinder, hot from the palm of her hand. It's the same microsoft I gave to Nukie two days before. I look up at the suddenly frail figure of Mandy Lyle as she gestures at the thing in deep frustration.

"It killed him, Tommy. Seven killed my little brother."

I can't think of anything to say to her as she spits into the carpet. But somehow, I know that after the police, medics, and probably another FDI agent ransacking her apartment, she could do with a friend. So I move close to her and she grabs me around the waist and my muscles ache in resistance as she squeezes me, forcing me to feel her pain.

I just stand there and take all the pain she wants to give.

Her face flushes red with embarrassment. Eyes are the windows to the soul, and Lyle's eyes are nothing but mirrors. So I have to try and read the other signs that unconsciously emanate from her face. The way she spits, the color of her face (or as close as my vidfone screen can emulate), the shape of her cheeks and lips.

"You held me in your arms and somehow things were right again. We could've made love, there on the sofa, but instead we just talked until we couldn't stay awake, and you left me in the morning with a note to tell me you had to go to work. I hated you that morning. I felt like a twenty rupee kitten in the Outzone. But I was just emotionally wasted after that night. I had died with Sean and you gave me new life. Well, there's more to life than sex and death, Tommy. Much more."

Between each rasping breath I'm trying to form her name with my numb lips. It's grotesque. I can almost look at my self from outside my body and laugh at how stupid and feeble I look. I feel like someone with an elephant sitting on his chest trying to talk after just being anesthetized at the dentist's. Like a flashback of the evening after Sean died.

After work I'm in the Blue Cross again, but Chowdhury isn't.

Trying to get the attention of the barboy, a very tall thirteen-year-old raja with a few whiskers of black hair along his upper lip, I instead manage to attract who I can only assume was one of the rajas around Chowdhury's table the other night. The kind of person who makes you think of where you've kept your cash, and if it's safe. This trip, I've got it rolled into a neat bundle and hidden in the pocket on the tongue of my trainers with the velcro strapped across it. I'm determined not take any chances.

"Looking for Amber Roy, again, chuck?" His voice is like sharp ice in my ear. I turn to face him and he's a massive fat guy, something unusual in the Outzone, where food is nearly legal tender.

My heart pounding in my ears, I emulate a casual nod as much as I can. "Yeah. Seen him around?"

"What do you want him for, chuck?"

I try my best to soothe his violent tone. Chuck isn't really an insult. It's just what the rajas call non-Asians. Same as us chucks call the Asians in Thames Midland rajas. Just a name. But he makes a simple word like chuck sound like shithead.

"Just seeing if he's got any more deals for me. I liked the last one he did."

He shuffles in his cheap black plimsoles for a few seconds. His fat face seems to light slowly, like someone twisting a dimmer switch behind his eyes.

"No worries, chuck. I'll take you to see him. He's in Paddington. Come on."

"Yeah, what do you want?" the barboy asks, his hand scraping a filthy rag that could once have been a green t-shirt around the inside of a steel tankard.

I look at the barboy, and I look at the big raja, and instead of trusting my instincts and asking the barboy anyway, I follow the raja out into the street.

We must be about two blocks down the street when he hits me. It's something flat and hard, like the business-end of a cricket bat right across the back of my skull.

The last thing I remember is the sensation of being turned over and over. I can tell he's looking for my money, checking the pockets of my blue plastic rain jacket and my gray canvas jeans. Then he feels around in my socks and I can feel him sliding his hand in my trainers, checking under the arch of my feet for the stash.

Then I can't seem to fight it anymore. The feeling that my brain's going to expand out of my head and that my eyes are going to pop out onto the cracked concrete wash over, and I'm out.

4. Amber Roy Chowdhury.

Swimming in my own long death, I try to think of a way out. Lyle's broken voice is still stabbing at my mind.

"There's no way out for people like us," she's saying. "We're all on some downward spiral. I know. I was born blind. I've never seen through real eyes. Then I saw myself for the first time as if I was out of my body and looking down on myself and I could see what kind of shit I was in. How stupid everything looked. How stupid and pointless my whole existence had been. It was the greatest feeling in the world, Tommy. I'd never felt that good before."

...out of my body and looking down on myself... That's what I'm doing. I'm having one of those near-death out-of-body experiences. I'm willing myself to live, to do something to save my own life, but I've got no power out here. I'm all spirit.

"The light, Tommy. It shines there like the ultimate high."

But there's no fucking light here. Not even a dark spot to signify where the Devil can get you. And damn it, after I found Amber Roy Chowdhury, the Devil deserved me.

The rain spitting on my face brings me around, and I'm alone on a heat-cracked pavement in Soho, the London Outzone. My head is pounding, there's a pain in my ribs like I've been run over by a robot racehorse, and it takes ages for the dizziness to wear off. I stumble along pipes of streets distorted by tunnel-vision. Falling over the rubble of crumbling buildings. Dodging the threats of local teamsters and streetkids. I don't even know where I'm going, let alone where I am. It's my mad hour. And it finishes in an arc of red neon as my weak and tired legs finally give out under me outside some club, amidst a gaggle of distressed voices.

I wake up in the back of a moving Metropol truck.

"Awake at last," one of the fat officers in the back with me says, his face peering at mine. I can smell chocolate on his breath. "You did well. Trying to crawl into a Tottenham Court club is a neat trick. You nearly made it, too. If someone hadn't accidentally found your Lambs Conduit dog tags, we'd have probably killed you. We don't take well to Outzone scum turning up on our doorstep."

My dry mouth parts to speak. "I was attacked. I got lost and was attacked. Then I woke up and tried to find my way home."

"That's okay," the fat cop says. "We're taking you to the monorail station. You can get home from there, can't you?"

I nod. It seems like the headache's gone now. I still have that pain in my ribs.

They let me off at the monorail station, and I thank them. I can't really thank them enough. It must be a busy night for them. I've heard rumors of Metropol cops shooting on sight anyone who looks remotely like they could come from the Outzone. But these are stories told by the rentacops of Lambs Conduit, and they've built up quite a rivalry with the official Federal police.

I check to see if my cash is still in the pouch in my trainers while waiting for the monorail and it is. Counting what's left, I have about thirty-five marks. It's just enough to feed me for the next week, if I'm at the stores at the right times to get what I want. Otherwise, I'll have to make do with the processed crap they feed us in the canteens at lunchtimes. Seeing the monorail train arriving, I quickly stash it back into the pouch and tighten up the velcro flap to hide it.

The sleek silver bullet takes me back to Lambs Conduit, but I don't want to go home just yet. I somehow need to feel the electricity of some local life. Just one of those whims I occasionally have, like when you want to go for a walk or get some fresh air. I need to be around people. My kind of people. I need to smell the sweat of a workforce, and the nearest place I can think of is the FLC games arcade.

I walk in past a pair of rentacops on their way out and feel a little safer. Only five or ten minutes into watching a raja jacked into the NST "Raid Port Said" game, his arms and legs still, while his mind controls the wild nuances of a fighter simulator flying against some ancient Middle-East threat, and I need to take a piss. So I head to the gents at the back of the arcade.

And there's Chowdhury. A sleek black cylindrical microsoft sticking out from behind his ear, and his hands shaking as he makes the first pain- filled lateral slice across his left forearm with a kitchen knife.

I race over and grab the blade from his hand. His face, uncomprehending, looks up in a fearful gaze. Black eyes staring into me as if I've spoiled his final pleasure.

Rage is swelling through me. I can't believe that he's so stupid to die from his own product, and I don't want to let him have the satisfaction. So I grab the collar of his jacket and throw him into one of the cubicles with all the force I can muster.

I can hear his skull cracking against the pipe leading from the cistern to the bowl, and it nearly knocks him out, and I do it for him.

After making the slices I can finally see it. I'm covered in blood and Amber Roy Chowdhury's sat on a toilet bowl dying. And on his arms I've etched two sevens on his arms. Each one a lateral cut across the forearm and a diagonal cut from there down the wrist to the hand.

Dropping the knife into his lap, I run home. But Lyle's gone.

Her face, cupped in the lines of that bobbed hair, looks so angelic now. She gives me the last half of the speech. "Nukie just said it was a dialect from Rio. That the only subliminal in there was the number seven. It's like something you know in a dream, but it doesn't actually manifest itself. It's extraordinary. I jacked it in and I understand the whole thing now. There was no L-Razor. Just a feeling of utter uselessness. So you have only one more useful thing you can do with your life after you've jacked seven. And that's to end it."

But I don't feel like ending it. So Lyle had an out-of-body experience that revealed the final truth to her. My experience is doing the same. Only the truth is that I'm a loader for Lambs Conduit that's guilty of murder, even if the bastard did deserve it, I didn't need to do it. And so I really deserve to die, too.

But not tonight.

I'm walking calmly back to my gasping body and I know I have to somehow climb back in to take it over. So I lie down on the sofa where Lyle and I could have made love, and I enter myself. Once there I force my fingers into my throat, and my gut spasms, retching onto the carpet.

"So that's it, Tommy," she says for the second time this night. "That's the end."

And her face disappears as I suffer my third blackout of the night.

I'm waking up to the sound of the door buzzing. The smell of vomit hits my nostrils, forcing me to dry-retch until I can make it to the door.

It's another suited guy from the FDI. Guilt may have left me to live last night, but the FDI won't.

The penalty for Chowdhury's murder would be death, even for an Outzoner -- we were in the Dustzone when it happened. And they know it was me. Someone must have seen me do it. Someone must have.

I'm looking for something with a sharp edge. I'm in the kitchen, looking for a knife. Where did I put them? The door still buzzes. There, in one of the cupboards, and I'm out of my head again, watching myself, thinking, this'll fuck their theory...

This time I can see that light Lyle talked about. It's there. It's waiting for me. But it's gray, like a fading light. Like a dimming light all around me.

I sit on the tiles on the floor of the kitchen; the knife edge slides across the skin. At first the wound is clean, white, shining in the reflection of the knife.

Then the blood comes, flowing steady like the emergency water pump out in the square. And I make the second cut. A single, bloody seven down my arm. Fading like the pump as the flow slowly runs dry.

And stops.

Ridley McIntyre ( 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 © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Ridley McIntyre.