Blood Perfect : Part Six
Flick takes a hold of the pole to the rear-centre of the skiff, upon which a blue light is attached. Apart from the driving apparatus at the front, where the droid is, this is the only thing to get a purchase on.
''Don't worry,'' says Shem, ''there's an inversion field. You can't fall off.'' He nods to the droid and they swoop down towards the warehouse-level beneath the holding pens, Flick clinging to the pole for dear life, Shem riding that thing like a surfer, the skirts of his long jacket flapping round his knees.
''What about the officer?''
''Mikey'll send him a skiff.''
The droid turns its head and nods, flicking the skiff this way and that to avoid a maintenance drone coming fast at them.
''I'd feel a lot safer if you kept your eyes on the road.''
The skiff swerves again and they glide into a warehouse bay. Mikey takes a sharp left between two aisles of racking and speeds up as he closes in on the far wall. Flick's stomach lurches but part of the wall turns out to be an obscure field through which they are propelled, far too quickly, into a narrow, steeply sloping passage with many jagged edges and protruding outcrops of rock. Mikey swerves and ducks and dives and even Shem grabs onto the skiff's strut. Flick finds it best to just close her eyes and kneel on the floor, wrapping as much of her body as she can around the base of the pole. She sneaks a look out of one eye and can see Mikey who, from this angle and at this bone-rattling speed, actually looks like he is chortling.
It doesn't take long before they stabilise again and Flick can open her eyes. They have emerged into the stalagtited roofscape of a natural cave system. Fifty cubits beneath them, thousands of slabs of blue quartz crystal which have grown in random, organic patterns have coalesced to form a jagged crown. The structure is lit from the inside, making the whole cavern glow blue. A swirl of movement within the crystal, along with their own flashing blue light, give the glow a rippling effect so that it is like being under water.
The surrounding cavern is dotted with cave entrances, all leading off to different parts of the mountain. Even at this time of evening there are other skimmers coming and going. Mikey takes them, at a more sedate and restful pace, down to an opening in the quartz structure. Following what looks to be a diplomatic carriage, its passenger compartment cloaked with obscure fields, they glide, somewhat surreptitiously, into the precincts of the Gnostic Parliament or, as the locals prefer to call it, The Cloisters.
The ambient lighting down the central boulevard is subdued to reflect the lateness of the hour. The carriage in front peels off down a side-street and descends steeply out of sight.
''Take us to the Half and Half,'' Shem says to Mikey, then to Flick: ''It'll be quiet, this time of night.''
Veering away from the boulevard, they glide between two tall bull-people carved out of the crystal which form the entrance to a large, enclosed piazza, surrounded by administrative buildings. Unlike the municipal districts, the areas of the city occupied by the Gnostic Hierarchy do not form part of the ancient fractal substructure. Also ancient, although the debate rages to this day as to exactly how ancient, the Gnostic formations are generally carved out of the bedrock, or utilise natural cave systems which form interconnected satellites around the central crystal cavern. These are then connected by shafts, usually cloaked, to the fractal parts of the city. The exception to this is the township of Lilleth, one of the most exclusive areas in the mountain, being situated adjacent to the central caldera and hence well within the scope of the fractal substructure.
The one characteristic which connects the various disparate Gnostic areas is that air of exclusivity which seems to attach itself to the race. Gnostic architecture seems older, more gnarly, which suits conservative theology, as well as the more modern, tourist-orientated sections of the society. It is often argued, by non-Gnostic factions, that the presentation of Gnostic architecture as ancient is itself an elaborately constructed blind, aimed at diverting attention from the real paradox in conservative Gnostic philosophy, namely: if the Gnostics are derived from angels why do the Gnostic parts of town all look like they have been gouged out with stone-age tools while the fractal substructure appears to have been exhaled from the mountain through some kind of divine magic? There are many ways in and out of this theological conundrum, too tedious to be examined here.
Consequently, the administrative buildings which surround the piazza, though beautiful in their crystalline structure, appear somewhat clunky and angular when compared to the sleeker, curved architecture formed out of the surrounding bedrock elsewhere. However, this in itself gives the piazza a much more human feel and because the area is largely out of bounds to the hoards of tourists that now drive the Murgatrojan economy, it also feels homely and down to earth. At least it does to Flick, whose eyes are as blue as the quartz that surrounds her.
Which, given her recent travails, is exactly the reason Shem, who is not insensitive to her needs, has brought her here.
Mikey gently brings them to ground in a small area marked out for the purpose, close to the entrance of The Half and Half, a very exclusive club indeed.
''I appreciate the sentiment,'' says Flick, ''but I can't go in there dressed like this.''
''Trust me,'' he says, offering her his arm.
Flick is too tired, spaced out and hungry to argue.
As soon as they step off Mikey's skiff, the droid scoots off without even a wave. Shem leads Flick into the lobby where a token mutattë who goes by the name of Dominion holds court. If Dominion doesn't like the look of you, you don't get in and that's that. No right of appeal.
Flick, who is fully expecting to be refused entry, hopes there is a nice little bistro nearby. Dominion, however, appears delighted to see her. He practically scampers out of his place behind the counter to shake her hand. ''I know it's not the done thing down in The Cloisters,'' he says, ''but I've been following your progress in the Nest.'' He gestures in mock collusion to an unfolded tablet on the counter.
''Haven't fucking got very far have I?''
Dominion is tickled.
''Love the swearing, it gives you a real sense of character. I think you'll do fine. Is this tomorrow's outfit?'' He paws her jacket. ''Must say it's a rare treat to get to see it before the Feed even goes out!''
Flick tests the water: ''Tell me, Dominion...''
''Oh, Dom, please.''
''Dom. What did you make of my narrative?''
Dominion smiles conspiratorially. ''Genius,'' he says.
''Clearly the layers of metaphor have allowed you to take ownership of some war crime but the silliness indicates it's more likely to be some kind of dark espionage. Especially the way it was shut down before you could 'reveal'’ too much. The Arbitration Mainframe can be very intuitive in its edits sometimes. It raises enough questions to keep the audience interested. At the end of the day, everybody expects the politicals to be allowed to get away with talking in tongues. Nobody takes them seriously as criminals anyway.''
''Of course. So you didn't take it to be literal at all?''
Flick smiles vaguely. She glances at Shem, who has his straight face on. She still finds him difficult to read. She can't quite place him in the scheme of things. All she knows about the loJain is that they're a prominent family of mercenaries and always have been. Flick has been out of circulation for too long to know their current operating networks. She's going to have to tread carefully.
''Always a pleasure, Dom,'' says Shem, ''but we are on a bit of a tight schedule... We have spying business to attend to after all.''
''Of course, of course,'' Dominion holds up an apologetic hand. He leads them through a corridor just off the main dining room into a pleasant little snuggery.
''Please,'' says Dominion, ''give your orders to the table.''
Shem thanks him and he reverses professionally out of the room.
''This is our second meal together,'' says Shem, as the food arrives. ''We're practically dating.''
''True,'' says Flick. ''You did royally shaft me the first time round.''
''Harsh,'' says Shem.
''At least the food's a bit more upmarket this time.'' Flick prods her chop which oozes blue blood. ''I think.''
Flick does so, she is starving. While she eats, Shem takes a little sachet from his pocket and tears it open. He holds it above Flick's plate. ''The prison food's laced with nanites,'' he says. ''You're going to need some to help drive your narrative.''
''It didn't go that well last time did it?'' Despite this she nods and Shem empties the sachet into her mash.
''What happens next?''
''There's a guy from Gnostic Liaison embedded on the sixth floor. Now you're in the system we can get you to him.''
''Is that who you're with? Liaison?''
Shem shakes his head with some distaste. ''Those fuckers will sleep with anyone.''
''That's kind of the point isn't it?''
Shem shrugs. ''You know this one. Mutattë. Temperance specialist.''
''From the war? I knew a few Liaison types.''
''Yes but you knew this one well. One of the arKhana.''
''Rodan,'' says Flick, without missing a beat. ''I know him.''
''Temperance wanted him as their rep.''
''Makes sense. They won't get one of their own into The Tower. What about me?''
''What do you mean?''
''Who's interests am I supposed to represent? I'm a known Federalist.''
Shem avoids the question. He retrieves a filophone from one of his many pockets, hands it to Flick. ''You answer to me. You're to work with arKhana and feedback whatever information he gives you. He has a line out to Temperance but we don't think he knows the identity of The Chemist.''
''Seems a bit cumbersome. Why not just give the name to Arbitration, then send in arKhana to extract him. He could get the job done.''
''No doubt. But Arbitration don't want to be seen to be taking sides.''
''That is the point of them, I suppose.''
''Indeed. But it remains a Gnostic Penitentiary after all, even if the operational side's been outsourced. And The Hierarchy wants proper skin in the game, not just some mutattë sideswitcher. They want to be able to come to a view on whether or not The Chemist should even be released to Temperance.''
''The Hierarchy asked for me?''
''So I'm led to understand. You know how these things work – wheels within wheels and so forth. I suppose they think Temperance are more likely to stomach a Federalist.''
''Because whoever's protecting The Chemist is more likely to be conservative?''
''Nationalists even, assuming this is all connected to wyrmal biotech. But there are plenty of Federalists who weren't exiled. Why have me back?''
''Because of the science,'' says Shem. ''They seem to think you might actually understand what this is all about.''
That was his story anyway. Flick thinks the truth's probably a bit more involved. The field portal opacifies behind her. She finds herself in much the same sort of arrangement as before: a small ante-room with a computer screen, fitted units. A laundry basket. The screen is giving her nothing, not even a flashing cursor. She goes on through the changing area, into the bathroom. She has a pee and sits there awhile, gathering her thoughts. Across the hall the bath looks very tempting. There are soaps and shampoos cluttering a nearby shelf.
She decides to leave it until morning. She's too shagged out to pamper herself. All she wants to do now is sleep. She lets her thoughts drift.
She can't even remember getting into bed. It must have been a pretty nifty manoeuvre though, because her clothes have been neatly squirrelled away beneath the covers by her feet. Getting back into them is going to be a bit of a mission. The cell's Davy-bird is on a perch rising from the foot of her bed. She can't tell if it's asleep or just trying to make her think it is. They tend to run off particle engines which require a certain amount of downtime to draw a charge. How much sleep they need depends on the energy source. When she was in her final year at university she built a wooden engine which ran on the smell of limon drizzle. It had to be left near cake at night. A layer of synthetic olfactory receptor neurons in the engine's varnish abstracted the kinetic energy of the odour particles and used this information to fashion, in principle, a quantum decay reactor which then borrowed from the strong nuclear force, essentially turning time into usable energy, stored in a photon battery and put to use the following morning. The engine was shaped like a cake stand and if you telephoned it and asked it nicely, it would deliver the cake to you at breakfast time on squeaky wheels. Flick could eat cake for breakfast in those days without putting on weight. Now, not so much.
''I know you're awake.''
She wonders how long arKhana has been watching her. She hasn't seen him yet. He has a musty smell about him, though, which is how she can tell he's close by. He enters her line of site, stopping by the Davy-bird to peer into its face. He has long, unruly hair and is dressed in scruffy-looking tie-dyed pyjamas.
''You must have been reading my thoughts,'' Flick says.
arKhana jumps with fright, knocking the bird to the floor with a flailing arm.
''jeBruille together man!'' he yelps. ''Where the fuck did you spring from?''
''Landed last night.'' She sits up, allowing the blanket to fall forward. That gets his attention.
arKhana addresses Flick's breasts, shaking his head.
Flick swings her feet out of the bed and gets herself together. She dresses while the Davy-bird is unconscious.
''Have you killed the bird?''