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Who Killed Woodbine Scab? A Short Story by Gavin G. Smith

Gavin Smith-detailWe are delighted to welcome Gavin G. Smith back to the Gollancz Blog for a special guest post. Gavin returns to the blog with the exclusive short story: Who Killed Woodbine Scab?

 

You know how deeply unsatisfying those stories that end with ‘it was all a dream’ are? Well let me say right off the bat that this was all a hallucination. The only bit that I’m reasonably sure was real was the raid on the lab.

Before we start there’s something you should know about me: I’m a slave. I don’t quite mean that in a literal sense, though I may as well be – I’m talking about my mind-set, despite the designer brain surgery. I was born a worker caste insect on a hive habitat. A life of slavery was genetically predetermined before the egg was even laid. I managed to work my way out of that, got hard tech augmentations, a whole new cybernetic body specced for combat in gravity, I’m almost the match for warrior caste ’sects. I named myself after my favourite immersion star, Viv Matto, and joined the Thunder Squads, got to see Known Space and kill interesting people, in their thousands. After I mustered out I went independent, bounty hunting mostly. Then I met Woodbine Scab, my partner, one of the best killers in the business and odds-on favourite for Known Space’s biggest bastard award. I like to say that I’m Scab’s slave. Not in a kinky way, but in the sense of him owning me and controlling my actions, because it’s better than the truth. I’m a slave to fear, and whilst it’s true that Scab does engender a reasonable amount of fear, it runs deeper than that. I think like a slave.

It was a weird job. I hadn’t even realised that some drugs were illegal. The idea seemed absurd, I mean, who would try and police what other people put in their bodies? I’d never heard of Key but apparently it was a high end, potent and extremely expensive hallucinogen. Something about the job had a whiff of Seeder Tech about it. If the drug had been developed by an application of our long-since departed progenitors then that might explain why the drug was illegal. So we went to see.

Scab had the Basilisk come in fast and low. Our corsair class hull peeled open and we dropped into the nanotechnology-polluted air over the warehouse, holding onto the extruded grips from the black spheres of our Personal Satellites. The P-Sats’ weak anti-gravity motors slowed our descent but we still went through the skylight like superheroes from some pre-loss media. The weight of eight feet of armoured cybernetic insect – that was me – bent the metal catwalk that bridged a huge vat of weed choked water taking up much of the warehouse. My compound eyes and antennae sensors fed information to the combat routines my neunonics were running. Scab landed behind me, his raincoat billowing out. He started killing first.

The muscle were all vat-grown meat, little more than automatons made of cloned human flesh and neunonics programmed with high end combat routines. I guessed some people wanted a matching aesthetic for their henchmen, muscle that went with the décor and didn’t bother you with a personality. The clones were good and would probably have given rival businesses, the local law enforcement contractors and vigilante societies a run for their money, but they weren’t that good. My lower left hand unclipped the lizard-made power disc from its slot in my lower back, the neunonics downloaded targeting information into the weapon and I threw it. With a thought, the double-barrelled laser pistols in my upper hands were already firing. My lower right hand had drawn the triple-barrelled shotgun pistol as the left, having thrown the disc, took hold of the grip as well. I fired the shotgun and all three barrels shot back in their hydro-pneumatic shock-absorbing sleeve. In front of me one of the vat-grown muscle’s nice white tunic was suddenly covered in hundreds of red pinpricks. Then the flechettes sensed flesh around them, exploded, and his internal organs vomited out of his torso. Behind me Scab was doing bad things with his tumbler pistol, virus- and venom-coated needles and monomolecular minidiscs. Suddenly everyone who wasn’t us was dead.

“Uh, didn’t we want someone alive?” I asked. This kept on happening. The room was humid and the olfactory information I was receiving from nearby ruptured internal organs wasn’t very pleasant. Below me in the vat I saw something breaking the water. Just a glimpse of sinuous serpentine movement and a momentary rainbow of reptilian scales and then it was gone, leaving only ripples and a bioelectric display playing across the surface of the water.

“There,” Scab said. My P-Sat, hovering just above me, relayed images of what Scab was pointing at into my neunonics. I used chemicals to suppress the fear, the cold thrill of panic that ran through me. I was guessing that Scab had hacked one of the warehouses smart matter walls and turned it transparent. Behind the wall was another tank that ran floor to ceiling, this one full of clear water and a surprised looking, hard-tech-augmented dolphin. Scab holstered his spit pistol and raised his left arm. It started to glow from within.

“Scab, don’t be a pri…” I started, then the incredibly illegal S-Tech energy javelin shot out from his hand. The ancient coherent energy field weapon must have hit the smart matter wall in just the right place. Cracks spiderwebbed quickly across the wall and then the water burst through, bringing with it an even more surprised dolphin. The E-javelin was a powerful weapon, but it was still a good shot. Then again, Scab always did have an eye for weakness.

***

So the typewriter has started to critique my ‘literary style’. Apparently info dumps aren’t the in thing. Well, how else are people supposed to learn? So it works like this: the serpentine things in the water were called dream dragons. They were Seeder biotech creatures whose secretion contained a great deal of an extremely potent hallucinogen called dimethyltryptamine, or DMT for short. They secrete it in a raw form and it sticks to the surrounding weeds. The bioelectric display then fertilises the secretion, suffusing it with the plants, which can then be processed into Key. In short the vat was filled with raw, unprocessed Key. When the water from the ruptured tank hit us it broke the already damaged catwalk and Scab and I ended up in the vat, as did the dolphin. Sometimes I think that Scab does things like this just to be perverse.

What happened next I don’t quite understand. Yes I swallowed some of the water, but any unwanted foreign agents should have been filtered out. I may have been soaked with the stuff but what little flesh I have left is hermetically protected. I don’t want to think about the ramifications of such a large amount of Key overwhelming my chemical protection systems. I suspect, however, that Scab may have hacked my systems to let the Key in. He certainly indulged, after all.

***

My P-Sat had to pull me out of the vat. I’m too dense to float. As I rose I saw the dolphin floating on the top of the water, either dead or unconscious. Scab had reconfigured his raincoat and was wrapping it around the creature.

“Wait!” he ordered as I headed up towards the hole we’d made in the skylight. He attached his P-Sat to the makeshift cradle he’d made from his coat and the AG motor pulled it up towards the hole. Scab swam over to where I hovered, dripping, and started to climb up me. With a thought I sent my P-Sat after the dolphin.

***

“A dolphin, Scab, a fucking dolphin!” I screamed at him. “That’s Church trouble! What the fuck were you thinking?” We were back onboard the Basilisk, the cargo bay expanding as a pool appeared in the floor. Scab was down on one knee next to the dolphin, concentrating. I guessed he was hacking the unfortunate creature’s neunonics for medical data.

“It’s still alive,” he finally said and straightened up. His brown pinstripe suit was already dry, his hat had managed to grip his head, but the make-up on his cadaverous face had run.

“We don’t fuck with the Church, Scab!” I continued. “Nobody fucks with the Church! They’ll send a monk after us!” All dolphins worked for the Church, either as Red Space navigators on Church ships, or as Bridge engineers. Dolphins were trusted with the Church-controlled tech that made Bridging into Red Space, the coterminous universe that allowed the uplifted races to travel from system-to-system, possible. The Church guarded it secrets well and few of its personnel were more precious than its dolphin engineers. Now the strangeness of taking on a drug bust was becoming clearer. We were in deep fishy-flavoured shit.

“I think they’ll be angry with our employers, rather than us,” he said quietly. I found myself looking into milky, dead eyes, as devoid of feeling as his features were of expression. “But that’s irrelevant, isn’t it?” It was more of a threat than he usually needed. He’d left unsaid that I just had to do as I was told.

“Church trouble. Scab, if you leave me with nothing to lose…”

“Decide now who you’re most afraid of.” he said quietly. My mandibles clattered together as he cut me off. It was a mercy, really. I think he was trying to stop me from saying something that would force him to respond, hack my neunonics and drop me into one of his lovingly designed, tailor made for Vic, torture immersions. He was right, it was him I was most afraid of, but I was pretty afraid of the Church as well. Fortunately just as I started to tell him to go and fuck himself the Key hit. I saw the dolphin flapping around in the little pool, Scab collapsed to the deck and I just froze in place. Unconsciousness was a welcome relief.

***

I could taste sand, actually taste it. It wasn’t the feedback from the delicate sensors of my modified hypopharynx, this was actually the taste of sand.

“Aaah!” And pain, unfiltered real pain and no internal medical systems to flood my body with painkillers. It felt like something had just bitten into my arm. I actually heard the chitin crunch. I pushed myself up out of the sand but I was struggling to make sense of the multiple images from my compound eyes without neunonics present to filter the information into relevant priorities. What was apparent was that there was a young, small human male hanging off my lower left arm. I shook the boy, but he was clamped on. “What are you doing?” I demanded. But the boy just stared at me with yellowed, bloodshot eyes. I cried out again when I finally succeeded in tearing him off my arm and throwing him away from me. The boy landed in a crouch next to what looked like an overturned wooden watercraft of some kind. I got a better look at him then. His features were pallid and drawn, he looked malnourished, and there were track marks running up both arms. He hissed and looked like he was going to attack. It was more instinct than anything else but despite the awkwardness of the human clothes I was wearing I found myself speed drawing a pair of .45s with my upper hands and a sawn-off shotgun with both lower hands. The boy hissed again and leapt over the upturned boat and sprinted across the sand away from me. That was when I saw Scab’s body. Even in the slender light of the crescent moon I could make out the gaping red smile of a cut throat. I stared at it, barely able to contain my gleeful phermonic discharges. None of this might be real, though it felt more real than an immersion, but just the image of dead Scab was something to behold. I looked around at my surroundings. I was on a beach. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before. Every world I’d ever visited had been too heavily industrialised. Normally I would have needed my neunonics to let me know what the actual word was for where dirt met undrinkable water but it had just come swimming out of my subconscious, like the knowledge that the two pistols I held loosely by my side were 1911 Colt .45s. I just knew stuff here, somehow. I knew that the vehicle compound encroaching onto the beach was called a bus station and the incredibly anachronistic vehicles belching petrochemical by-products were the buses in question. I knew that the skeleton of the huge humanoid in the open tomb of skulls belonged to the Antaos, who was slain by Herakles. I knew there was a city beyond the bus station. I was wearing a light linen summer suit, a short sleeved shirt tailored for my insect body, and a hat. I was all natural now, no hard tech body, and yet somehow I was able to function in what appeared to be 1G. And I knew that Woodbine Scab was dead.

“Little shit,” I muttered, looking in the direction the feral junkie boy had run. I’m not sure why I said it. Perhaps some residual fear resulting from my time spent in Scab’s company. My humanophile tendencies notwithstanding, I wasn’t superstitious, but I wondered if I feared his spirit watching me in this strange place. He’d always seemed too vile to die. All the best monsters were.

“It wasn’t the boy.” The voice was wetter sounding but familiar. I laced the night air liberally with phermonic secretions of terror. “They only want insect meat.” The wound in Scab’s neck was talking to me. Opening and closing like an obscene mouth.

“Scab…?” It was a question that broke my heart.

“I want you to find out who killed me,” my tyrannical partner’s cut throat told me.

“Will you die properly then?” In the real world I had neunonic safeguards set up to stop me blurting out questions like this. Scab didn’t answer but I didn’t like the set of his cut throat mouth, so I just nodded and turned to walk away.

“You need to do this,” the horrible wet rasping voice said from behind me. “For your own sake. And find me some morphine!”

***

Wherever it was, it was hot and I couldn’t regulate my temperature through normal means, so I was forced to take my suit jacket off and carry it awkwardly over my shoulder. It seemed to be a primitive, mostly human city of narrow alleys and terraced stucco buildings, ranging in colour from off-white to ochre, with a skyline of domes and minarets. It was teeming with bustling life.

Everything was for sale in the city’s souqs, from confectionaries to slaves, from silk to a myriad of narcotics, from spices to the bodies of strange creatures harvested for their meat. Amongst the humans I caught glimpses of other uplifted species. Feline eyes watching me through a veil as he sucked on a water pipe, a similarly veiled lizard carried through the narrow streets on a palanquin. A cold thrill ran through me when I thought I caught a glimpse of a serpentine silhouette dancing behind a screen in a café but I convinced myself I’d just imagined it. And then there were the stranger things. The wretched, nearly-naked junkies feeding from the nipples of egg-shaped clusters growing out of fungoid corners. The green miasmas that seemed to permeate certain parts of the souq which I decided to stay clear of and once, at the end of steep, stepped alleyway, I thought I glimpsed the rainbow scaled coils of some huge but unseen creature. It was all a little much, and I had no real idea of what I should do, so I robbed someone at gunpoint and used the money to rent a room in a hotel.

***

The typewriter came as something of a surprise. My hotel room was bare and clean, arched French windows opening out onto a balcony overlooking the souq. The typewriter, and it took a while for me to assimilate my knowledge of the apparatus’s purpose, sat on a table in the middle of the room. The thin curtains on either side of the French windows were blowing around the table. For some reason I considered drawing a gun but decided that would be too melodramatic and took my hat off instead. Cautiously I moved towards the table, staring at the typewriter, and then, with nothing else to do with my hat, I put it down next to the archaic writing machine. I noticed that there were sheets of paper next to the typewriter. I picked them up and leafed through them. Each one had neat rows of static symbols printed on them. Stranger still, even without my neunonics to translate them I could ‘read’ these ‘words’. The first page had the following written on it: ‘I could taste sand, actually taste it. It wasn’t the feedback from the delicate sensors of my modified hypopharynx, this was actually the taste of sand.’ I put the pages down quickly. The typebars on the typewriter started to hammer away at the blank page held in its rollers. I leaned forward and read the words that had just been typed. They read: ‘I put the pages down quickly.’

“This is going to get annoying very quickly,” I said, accompanied by the clatter of the typewriter. I stood up and moved across to the window and looked out over the city and tried to ignore the sound of the typewriter, wondering that if perhaps I stood still, did nothing and tried not to think, it would just ignore me. It didn’t.

“Hi there!”

I spun around, drawing three pistols on an empty room. Cursing my lack of sensors, I had to do things the hard way and look around. It took a few moments before I realised that the typewriter was now facing me, had grown a number of legs and had taken on a pronounced insectile appearance.

“What?” I managed. Which seemed quite reasonable in the face of recent events.

“Not very polite, are you fella?” The typewriter’s keys had certainly taken on maw-like characteristics, the levers were looking like mandibles, and the pressed metal had been replaced with chitin. I gave some thought to blowing whatever it was away.

“What….?” I started and then, just so I wasn’t repeating myself, “the fuck, are you?” All of this was accompanied by the now mushier sound of strangely organic-looking type bars hitting paper. The typewriter gave my question some consideration.

“Well that’s a kind of complicated question,” it said. “On the one hand I’m a simple Remington typewriter…”

“I will shoot you,” I assured it.

“On the other hand, I am your insect soul.”

It’s times like this I wish I was able to mimic human expressions. Pheromone secretions just don’t have the nuances for consternation and I can’t narrow my eyes.

“No,” I finally said. “I don’t have a soul because there’s no such thing, and if I did have a soul it wouldn’t be a typewriter, and if I did have a soul and it was a typewriter I wouldn’t refer to it as an ‘insect’ soul.”

“It’s an occult thing and if you didn’t have a soul you wouldn’t be in here.” I pulled back both the hammers on the sawn off, completely unnecessary but it seemed to work as an intimidatory measure. “Woah! Easy there, fella!” It scuttled back on the table, knocking my hat onto the floor.

“Less philosophy, more answers,” I suggested.

“I don’t think you’ll like any of my explanations,”

“The truth?”

“You’d hate that.”

“Try me.”

“I’m local flora?”

“Possibly believable if you hadn’t phrased it as a question.”

“You want me to lie more effectively?”

“No, I still want want you to tell me the truth.”

“I’m an externalised manifestation of a bowel parasite.” I sagged a little as the typewriter told me this. Whatever else it was, it was clearly a moron. I headed for the door, stooping to pick up my hat. “Hey, where are you going?” it protested.

“Away,” I muttered. Muttering is difficult when you have mandibles, it took me ages to learn. “Besides, surely you know, as you seem to be typing it all down.”

“If you didn’t like this Scab guy,” the typewriter said, “why are you going looking for his murderer?”

“Because I don’t know where I am, or what I’m doing, or how long it’s going to go on for. But…” I paused. “I’m very good at doing what I’m told!” I had no idea why I was shouting at the typewriter. I turned away from it and stalked towards the door and then something occurred to me. “If you’ve been recording everything, do you know who killed him?”

“Well there’s what we know, and what we know, right?” the typewriter finally said. It sounded cagey to me.

“No,” I said. “That’s the kind of thing that people… typewriters… say just to sound clever. You do know something, don’t you?” The typewriter didn’t answer. Instead it curled up on itself, trying to only present chitinous carapace. I crossed the room, grabbed the thing – eliciting a surprised yelp – crossed to the balcony and held it above my head and threatened to dash it on the stones of the street below. “Tell me!” I screamed at it to the clatter of the keys.

“Okay, okay! Please! The Exterminator! You want the Exterminator! Though he’s no friend to the likes of you and I!”

“Where can I find him?” I demanded. I could feel the typewriter wriggling in my hands and I was worried that I’d lose my grip on him. It.

“There’s a bar, Annie’s, he drinks at Annie’s, you’ll find him there!”

I think the main reason that I didn’t kill the typewriter there and then was because he had annoyed me, and killing things just because they annoyed you was something that Scab did. Instead I put the shaking, terrified thing back down on the table, and walked out of the room intending never to return. It was only down in the street that I realised I had no idea where Annie’s was.

***

I was trying very hard not to look at the auxiliary arsehole in the middle of the barwoman’s head but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was staring at me. The bar seemed to come from a similar era as the rest of the city, as far as I could tell, but it felt like it belonged on another geographical location, if that makes any sense. It didn’t seem to fit with the feel of the rest of the city. It was a dive but a nice, comfortable dive, there wasn’t that much desperation dripping from the wall like sweat. I was worried about the carcinogens in the thick, smoky atmosphere, though.

The bar woman with the auxiliary arsehole in her forehead wasn’t the only thing I was trying to avoid looking at. I was trying not to look at the insect wearing a police uniform. It wasn’t an insect like I was, not an uplift, no, this was just a big bug, something called a cockroach, and he was the chief of police apparently. I was trying to ignore the humans sipping from their drinks, wrapped in the multiple arms of deformed monkey-like creatures with straw-like proboscis they used to drink from the pierced skulls of their hosts. I was trying to ignore the pretty, young, dark skinned men whose skulls had been hollowed out, their brains replaced with large beetles that fluttered wings and split carapace. Frankly all the insect stuff was starting to mess with my head more than a little bit. The strange thing was I felt oddly popular, despite being the only ‘sect uplift in here. More than one person had tried to type on my face and I hadn’t had the heart to tell one of the bar’s clientele that I didn’t actually have nipples with which to dispense narcotics. Mostly, however, I was trying to avoid dead Scab, though his grinning cut throat was probably the happiest I’d ever seen him. He was sat behind me, languid, amongst the pretty boys with the beetles for brains. I could see him in the bar mirror. One hand inside a skull, obscenely stroking a beetle. The other holding a cigarette as he inhaled through the mouth and exhaled through the gash. This city seemed to offer a great deal of pleasures and judging by the compliant young man sat next to him, cooking up, my recently murdered partner seemed intent on sampling them all. That was my choice, it seemed, as I sipped my drink and felt it burn all the way down. Look at the auxiliary arsehole or Scab’s staring, more dead-than-usual eyes. I wasn’t sure there was all that much difference, the arsehole seemed more benevolent. It farted. The barwoman at least had the self-awareness to look embarrassed.

“What brought you here?”

I hadn’t even been aware of the man sitting down next to me. He was tall, for a human, I guess, cadaverous, pale, unhealthy looking but there was something regal about his features, perhaps the sharp V of his cheekbones. He wore a brown suit cut not dissimilarly to the one I’d woken up wearing, though with fewer arms. The suit was made of heavier material and looked too warm for the heat. His hat was on the stool next to him, and there was some kind of stainless steel tank with a nozzle spray on the floor next to him. He was smoking but then everyone was, even I was tempted. I like to fit in.

“I’m looking for someone,” I told him.

“Not the excuse,” the man said, his voice a melodious drawl. “Your means of conveyance.”

“Huh?” I asked intelligently.

“Yage, it was given to me by an Urarina Shaman.” I spent some time staring at the crazy man next to me. I tried to ignore the feeling of Scab’s actually-dead eyes on the back of my neck. Slowly I was able to work out what this lunatic was talking about.

“You mean why am I hallucinating?”

“You’re not hallucinating,” he told me. “You’re here. You’re more here than any place you’ve ever been in your life.”

“It’s called Key,” I told him. He nodded. “It’s made from the secretions of some Seeder pet called a dream dragon.” He nodded again like he knew what I was talking about, and maybe he did.

“I hear you’re looking for me.” He hadn’t looked at me directly but he was watching me in the mirror. I noticed that dead Scab had gone.

“You the Exterminator?” I asked, feeling that the conversation was getting away from me again. Initially I thought that his name was trying too hard. He sighed.

“I’m an exterminator-” now he glanced at me “-no offence.” Now it seemed that his title just came from his job.

“A…” I almost said friend. “An acquaintance of mine got killed, down on the beach, near the giant’s tomb.” Now he turned on his stool to look at me properly.

“It’s nothing personal, just a job,” he said. “And I’m not on duty, so we don’t have a problem right now.” He looked down at the stainless steel cylinder on the floor next to him and I resisted the urge to move my hands closer to my guns.

“He wasn’t a ‘sect,” I said, “I mean an insect. He was a hairless monkey, one of you lot.” He looked back up at me. He had sad eyes.

“You can see it, then?” he asked. Perhaps his job helped him recognise surprise in insect faces. “The ugly spirit.” I was shaking my head; it was the first human affectation that I’d ever learned. “I’m getting help.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, do you know what happened to my… acquaintance?”

“Why are you going to all this effort for someone who’s just an acquaintance?” he asked. It was a good question.

“I’ve nothing better to do.”

“I didn’t kill your friend,” he said looking back at his glass, voice full of remorse.

“You know anything about it?” I asked. He shook his head. “If he was a bug, like you, then I’d assume he’d been consumed, otherwise… the factions? An argument over a stash? Jealous lover?” Then after a pause: “An accident.”

“His throat was cut,” I protested. “What do you mean consumed?” He glanced back up at me, and this time his expression was difficult to read. Then he glanced in the mirror. I couldn’t be sure but I think he was checking on the cockroach chief of police.

“You know, for the high,” he told me. “The sensuousness of telepathy.” I was slowly starting to understand why I was so popular here. He looked down at the cylinder again. “I like you people. Too much. But it’s destroying us, that’s why you’ve got to go. We meet during the day and I think we’d have a problem.” I laughed at this. It didn’t sound right because I’m an insect and a few people turned to give me a look.

“What are you getting help for?” I asked. He was looking in the mirror again, this time at the beautiful boys with beetles in their heads.

“Proclivities. Dependencies,” he said simply. This made no sense. Unless his proclivities or dependencies were harming others, in which case he should be subject to whatever passed for law enforcement here, then he didn’t need any help. I was starting to wonder just how messed up this place was. On the other hand, the chief of police was a giant cockroach. I didn’t think that was positive symbolism in a place that seemed so humanocentric.

“Who’s helping you?” I asked, as much for something to say as actual curiosity.

“The Alchemist,” he said.

“None of you have real names?” I asked.

“Life’s easier as a cipher.”

I stood up and put my hat on. “Stop killing my people,” I told him and then felt faintly foolish. He didn’t look up. Instead he took another sip from his dirty glass. I turned away from him and made for the stairs leading up to the street. Dead Scab was waiting for me there.

“Ever get the feeling that Kafka’s fucking with you?” he asked. Then he put a steel and mounded leather mask over his face. The mask was connected to a concertinaed tube that ran to an oval cylinder much thinner than the Exterminator’s. Scab turned a wheel on top of the cylinder and breathed deeply. He seemed to exhale through his smiling red gash but there was nothing visible. He turned the wheel back the other way.

“What’s that?” I asked despite myself.

“Nerve gas,” Scab’s wound answered. I took a pointless step back. “I always wanted to try it.” Scab put the mask down and picked up the drum magazine for a Thompson submachine gun. I noted that he was armed. He started to turn the key on the drum’s clockwork mechanism, tightening it. I started to feel the inevitability of violence.

“So I’m running around trying to find your murderer whilst you’re having fun?”

Scab stopped tightening the drum. “Do you want to have fun?” he asked. I struggled to think of a more obvious trap than that question. Scab reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a glass and steel syringe. I couldn’t be quite sure but the contents of the syringe appeared to be bits of crushed scorpion. I recognised a pincer, a bit of segmented tail, a sting. I grimaced, something insect facial features are quite good at if you know what to look for. I don’t like arachnids, few ‘sects do. “Make you feel like a god,” he told me. The talking wound was more solicitous than I remembered Scab being. I moved past him and started up the stairs.

“I’ll go and find who killed you,” I called down to him as I stepped out into the heat of the souq.

***

I was none the wiser. Actually I was arguably less wiser than I had started. The only name I had was the Alchemist and that seemed unrelated. I walked the souq for a while but felt too many hungry eyes on me. The only real place I had to go was back to my hotel room. I didn’t relish seeing the typewriter again but I figured I could always lock him out of the room. Besides, without the help of chemicals and machines I was starting to feel tired.

“You’re back!” The typewriter seemed pleased to see me. The keys depressed and the type bars clattered against the white paper.

“Please just be quiet,” I almost begged. “I need to get some rest.”

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Do you remember how frightened you were when I left?”

“I… I’m lonely,” the typewriter admitted. The typewriter was lonely enough to miss the guy that was victimising him. It reminded me a little of Scab and me. “Maybe you should write down your experiences?” the typewriter suggested hopefully.

“You know my experiences!” I shouted at it.

“But you could write down something, ummm, dirty,” the insect suggested salaciously. I tried to bend my mandibles in a way that mimicked a frown. “You know, kind of a confession. You’ll find it therapeutic, feel better.” Now it sounded positively filthy.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Maybe you’ll learn something?” it suggested, now trying to sound innocent.

“Like what?” I was starting to get suspicious. “You know something about Scab’s death, don’t you?”

“I know what you know,” the typewriter said. Something about its manner suggested that it might not be lying but it certainly wasn’t telling me everything.

“What about this Alchemist guy?” I asked.

“What about him?” the insect typewriter tried to say casually. “He helps degenerates, weans them off the insect meat, cures unnatural proclivities.”

I almost asked him what he meant but instead: “Could he have had anything to do with Scab?”

“Depends. Was your friend a degenerate?”

“He wasn’t my friend, and yes.” I gave this a bit more thought. “Though he’d be resistant to any kind of cure.” It was thin but it was beginning to sound something like a motive. I hated this investigating shit. It was much easier to turn up, shoot somebody and get paid. “Where can I find the Alchemist?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” the typewriter said. I leant over and looked at the paper between the rollers and read: ‘“I don’t know,” the typewriter lied.’ I felt faintly ridiculous as I drew one of the .45s and pointed it at the now shivering typewriter.

“I’m not supposed to get involved!” it cried. “I’m just the narrator!”

“No, I’m the narrator, motherfucker, you’re just a recording device. Don’t make me ask you again.”

***

The market stalls in the souq were closing, the wares being put away by traders glancing up at the sky. A storm was rolling in. I didn’t like the way the angry clouds moved across the sky. It seemed counter to the prevailing winds as though some angry, unseen intelligence was moving them.

***

The waiting room outside the Alchemist’s office was strange. I’d just about become used to the dumb furniture in this place, and the way it didn’t adjust to their user’s physiology (not that they were ever programmed correctly for insects) and the pre-Loss human décor. The faceless guys that filled every other chair in the office I was less sure of, however. All of us under the watchful eyes of a clearly unsculpted, rather severe-looking human woman. All the faceless men were dressed like the Exterminator. Heavy suits, hats, raincoats, all too hot for the city, and each had a silver cylinder with an attached sprayer on the floor next to him. Their faces were just blank skin with only suggestions of where their mouths, noses and ears should be. I caught movement under one of their raincoats. Something about it seemed insectile.

The receptionist lit up a cigarette with yellowed fingers. “He’ll see you now.” Her voice was a wet, gravelly rasp. She watched me over her pince nez as I stood and walked to the indicated door.

***

The Alchemist looked wrong but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. He looked like a ball had been put on top of a larger ball and then given limbs. His face was florid, and he continually mopped at his brow. He wore a thick tweed suit, a bow tie and smiled a lot. I suspected the smile was supposed to be ingratiating. It wasn’t. There was something just not quite human about him, as though someone had described a human to whomever or whatever had made him and something had gotten lost in translation.

Heavy metal filing cabinets covered one wall. The rest were covered in neat rows of leather bound books, with the exception of the space made for his diplomas.

“So you’re here for the cure?” the Alchemist asked as I wandered around his office. I chose a book at random and opened it. The pages were blank. Maybe I just wasn’t accessing the information contained inside correctly. I tried to shrug and replaced the book on the shelf.

“What do you want to cure me of?” I asked, curious.

“Your predilections for insect flesh and young men,” he said and gestured irritably towards the chair in front of his desk. It seemed he was uncomfortable with me roaming free about the office. I sat down, largely because I wasn’t as big a dick as Scab. “But please, don’t worry Mr…”

“Matto,” I supplied.

“I’m a doctor, well, an engineer anyway.”His lips were moist and there was a bit of drool in the corner of his mouth.

“But I don’t like men and I am an insect,” I explained. He frowned, flabby brow wrinkling.

“May I enquire where your predilections lie?”

“Just sex and drugs?” I asked. He nodded. “Drugs are mostly functional, pain and emotional control, combat drugs, some recreational but I prefer alcohol and immersions, and I’m a monosexualist of the hetero variety. Just old fashioned, I guess.”

“Insect women?” he asked looking uncomfortable. I’d encountered this kind of prejudice before. I smiled. To a human an eight-foot tall insect smiling tends to make them think they’re about to be eaten or inseminated.

“They’re few and far between,” I said, relishing this. “I like human women.” His faux-professional detachment slipped and I saw the surprise on his face. I’d seen it before. I drew one of the .45s and levelled it at him. I was gratified to see the terror of an abject coward written all over his face. That would make this a lot easier. “You’re the dolphin, aren’t you?” I demanded. “The Alchemist for a drug dealer, how original, you must have been up all night thinking of that one.”

“Chemist, not a dealer, Mr Matto, and all my exterminators are just next door…”

“Can they get here before I shoot you?” I asked. The Alchemist gave this some thought. “It’s rhetorical.”

“Now there’s no need for violence…” he said and actually put his hands up.

“No, but it is expedient. What the fuck’s going on? Why this elaborate set up?” He seemed reluctant to answer. “Is this some kind of shared hallucination?” I demanded.

“It’s not a hallucination, Mr Matto. To all intents and purposes our consciousnesses are elsewhere.”

“And you’ve done this before, haven’t you? You make the Key after all, you know the ropes in here. All the insect stuff, were you trying to get to me? The drugs and the sex to ensnare Scab?”

“That’s just narcissism…” the Alchemist began. I stood up and made to pistol whip him.

“No! Please!” he begged. “I wasn’t trying to harm anyone, just slow you down, that’s all. I wanted to set up a kingdom of pleasure for your partner and just keep you on ice.”

“Why?” I demanded.

“Because if Scab wanted to stay then I’d come down first and maybe…”

“Escape,” I finished for him. It was a slim chance. The Basilisk would have locked him down by now and even if he was a good enough hacker, or still had some Church tricks left, I was pretty sure that Scab had hidden some autonomous operation routines in my neunonics. Basically turning my hard tech body into an automaton whilst my mind was out.

“But that doesn’t make any sense? Why kill Scab?”

“I didn’t kill Scab,” the Alchemist told me, but I wasn’t listening.

“Will it damage him getting hurt here? Keep him here?”

“I didn’t kill Scab!” This time he was more insistent. I looked back at him.

“Yeah, I know he’s wandering about, he’s just that kind of arsehole, but you cut his throat.”

“There’s no reason for me to do that. When people die in here they tend to come down. They leave. That’s the opposite of what I wanted and there’s no way I was going to attack a guy like that.”

He had a point.

“So who killed him?” I asked.

“I’ve no idea,” the Alchemist sighed. He seemed to have undergone some kind of transformation. The artifice had left him. He seemed more unhappy than frightened now.

“Who would have wanted him dead? I mean other than people who’d met him?”

“That’s the thing,” the Alchemist said. “He’s not dead.”

I covered him with the .45 as he stood up and pushed at the wall behind his desk with all the diplomas on it. The wall split and swung open revealing a faintly familiar-looking warehouse. The warehouse might have been pre-Loss human in style but I recognised a drugs den when I saw one. It was clear that the office was just a façade.

“I based it on a Shanghai opium den from the 1920s,” the Alchemist told me with a certain amount of pride in his voice. I had no idea what he was talking about. Small groups of people sat on dirty embroidered cushions around low tables, illuminated by dim lanterns. Strange creatures, actual aliens, not just pre-programmed-evolution uplifted animals like us, the human, the felines and the reptile, hung bound over the tables. They had what looked like primitive grinding machines crudely grafted to their foreheads. Their mottled greenish flesh was covered in complex scarification. The deep black pools of their eyes suggested both intelligence and pain, as though they couldn’t quite believe what was happening to them. As I watched one of the den’s patrons reached up and cranked the lever on a grinding machine. Crushed pieces of scorpion tumbled out into a mortar, which another man started to crush further with a pestle. Finally the paste was added to glass and steel syringes and injected into scabbed veins. Suffering and intoxication. This did seem like Scab’s kind of place. I turned to the Alchemist.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” I asked. I was giving some thought to killing him. Well, maybe not killing him, but certainly shooting him.

“You should try it,” he said. “It makes you feel like a god, just for a while.”

“You’re stuck in your own feedback loop,” I pointed out. “You’re taking drugs to have hallucinations about taking drugs.”

“This isn’t a hallucination,” he told me again. He gestured towards the aliens. “They’re traps, prisons. It was part of a ritual to summon Malinalxochitl.”

“Who?”

“The Aztec Scorpion Goddess. You see the scarification? They’re wards. Each one is a vessel that holds a separate part of her.”

“I thought the Seeders were the only gods.”

“Before the Loss humans invented many gods. It’s not quite the ultimate high, I’m still searching for that, but it’s good, so good.” Now his chin was speckled with drool.

“Scab?” I asked, my uneasiness stemming from the kind of fear that isn’t easy to quantify because you don’t truly understand what it is you’re afraid of.

“His willpower is extraordinary. Somehow he clings to this place despite his apparent murder.” The Alchemist seemed to be looking into the distance.

“Is he here?” I asked. I heard movement behind me. I glanced back to see the faceless exterminators standing in a line behind us, cylinders hanging from one hand, the other hand inside their belted raincoats. The Alchemist turned and offered me a sickly leer, and then headed deeper into the ‘opium den’. I glanced back at the exterminators, then turned and followed him.

***

The chair, if that was what it was, looked to be made of blackened bone. It seemed to occupy the unenviable middle ground between furniture and sodomy. Its overly complex spine melded with Scab’s, and black ribs dug into my partner’s flesh. There was a ball gag in the wound in Scab’s throat. I was trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Just for a moment I thought I saw a maddeningly familiar obsidian face in the gloom behind the chair, looking down on my partner.

“This is what he wants,” the Alchemist said.

“Let him go,” I said quietly, watching my partner’s tortured flesh writhe. The Alchemist turned to look at me, a reasonable facsimile of earnestness on faux human features.

“You could be free of him. You could stay here, embrace the city’s pleasures.” And it was tempting. It was the solution to many of my problems.

“The typewriters are too annoying,” I told him. He frowned. I glanced behind me again. The exterminators had followed us.

“Then leave, but leave him here,” the Alchemist said.

“I’d still collect the bounty on you.”

“By which point I would have lived more than a lifetime in here, and are you really sure you want to piss off the Church?” It was another excellent point. I wish I could say that I made my decision for a good reason, for anything other than abject fear of a helpless Scab, but I’d be lying. Instead I nodded, as though agreeing with the Alchemist. I raised the .45 I was holding and emptied it into the chair. At the same time I drew the sawn-off shotgun with my lower left hand and emptied both barrels into one of the ritually scarred aliens. I was vaguely aware of being splattered in ichor from the chair as my bleeding partner spilled onto the filthy floor. It was the ruptured scarred alien that held my attention, however. Screaming, like howling wind raging through a morass. Then the wound exploded into a gusher of living scorpions. Bravely, I ran.

***

A tide of vengeful scorpions chased me through the souq. I ran back to the hotel room for no other reason than it was higher ground.

“Ah!” The typewriter cried as I threw open the door to my hotel room.

“You know!” I shouted at it. It cowered, fluttering its wings and carapace nervously as I reloaded the .45 I’d emptied into the chair.

“Scab is a centipede!” it screamed at me in terrified defiance before jumping off the table with a dinging noise and making for the balcony. A few quick strides took me across the room and I stood on it before it reached the French windows.

“Ow!” it cried. I levelled the gun at it. “He is the messiah! The ten idiot daemon gods dance around him playing their pipes!” It seemed the typewriter was somewhat given to hyperbole.

“Do you know what humans do to bugs?” I asked as once more I betrayed my species and started to grind my foot into the beetle-like writing machine. It screamed some more, legs splayed out on the bare boards of the floor. “Who. Killed. Scab?!”

“You did!” it cried. I took my foot off the thing and it scuttled to a corner to curl up and whimper. Of course I had. It was obvious. “You repressed it and I was trying to protect you!” it shouted at me. I stumbled to a different corner and sat down hard.

“And now he knows I want to kill him,” I said numbly. Flitting images of me, furious about Church involvement, my suspicions of his complicity in me being trapped in this hallucination, and years of abuse and slavery. I saw myself taking his own cutthroat razor and sawing at his throat until it was red and smiling up at me. I had no idea if these were memories or imaginings. “He wanted me to work out what I’d done so he’d be justified in…” I actually lacked the imagination to think of what Scab would feel this incident justified. I shook my head. Outside I could hear screams. The chitinous waves of the scorpions sounded like pebbles shifting on a beach.

“We could run,” the typewriter whispered. “Catch a bus out of town. You could feed me, write for me. I wouldn’t have to fear the tyranny of the blank page. My secretions could keep you happy.”

I looked down at the poor thing. “You’re bored, aren’t you?” I asked. Sad beetle eyes looked back up at me. Fleeing sounded like a good idea, though.

***

I found myself back on the beach between the bus station and the tomb of Antaos sans typewriter. Of course the exterminators were waiting for me. A line of them between the bus station and the tomb, cylinders of poison gas on the ground in front of them, spray nozzles in one hand, the other hidden in their rain coats. I’d outrun the tide of scorpions across the rooftops but I could hear them approaching. It seemed that I was going to die this way and return to an angry Scab in the really real world. All I’d wanted to do was hide from Scab a bit longer and I’d heard that deserts were beautiful.

“I don’t suppose we can talk about this?” I asked and then felt foolish, seeing as none of them had mouths. It looked like they were waiting for me to draw, just like in a colonial immersion, just like Vic Matto. I wasn’t sure if I was the good guy or the bad guy.

I heard the engine first. I saw the car driving across the beach towards me. Information swam up out of my subconscious, informing me that the car was a 1950 series 62 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Somehow I wasn’t surprised when the car stopped and a bloodied Scab climbed out. He opened the rear doors and pulled out a Browning Automatic Rifle and a Thompson sub machine gun with a drum magazine. He threw the BAR to me and resignedly I caught it. Sometimes I wish we both had something more to offer.

Scab’s solution was simple. It always was. The exterminators pulled chitinous weapons, made from the bodies of their victims, out of their coats. Amongst clouds of poison gas, amidst the flickering light glare of muzzle flashes glinting of spent cartridge brass, we embraced the pornography of violence once again.

***

“So who killed me?” Scab asked as we drove out into the red tinged desert. The sun was making its presence felt over the horizon but hadn’t risen yet.

“The Alchemist,” I lied. He turned away from the road to look at me. A scorpion crawled out of his cut throat. He nodded, not believing me for a moment. I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow he’d gained more respect for me. He pulled over to the side of the dusty road.

“Time for our William Tell act,” he told me and handed me a glass. “Don’t worry, I’m a good shot.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I still climbed out of the car and put the glass on my head. Scab climbed out of the other side of the Coupe de Ville and took a long drag of his cigarette, smoke leaked through his red smile. He levelled the Broom Handled Mauser at my head and then shot me between the eyes, because, as he said, he was a very good shot.

 

Gavin G. Smith is the Dundee-born author of the hard edged, action-packed SF novels VeteranWar in HeavenThe Age of Scorpio and A Quantum Mythology, The Beauty of Destruction as well as the short story collection Crysis Escalation. He has collaborated with Stephen Deas as the composite personality Gavin Deas and co-written Elite: Wanted, and the shared world series Empires: Infiltration and Empires: Extraction. You can find out more about Gavin by visiting his website or following him on Twitter @gavingsmith