by A.C.. Arquin
Copyright 2022 by Words on the Wind, LLC
The Aqueduct was going nowhere, and Tak was going with it. The narrow tube-shaped bar nestled inside the shell of the old abandoned city aqueduct, and the lives of its patrons were as full of promise and hope as the rusted-out walls. You had to climb three flights of scaffolded stairs to get to The Aqueduct, the worn iron steps separated from the open air by a perfunctory length of chain masquerading as a railing. More than one drunken customer had gotten to the bottom by the direct route. Still, it was worth the climb. There was a breeze at this height that never reached the sweltering street, and the large, torch-cut windows let it flow across the bar unimpeded.
Tak placed a white stone on the surround board and sipped his ralto, grimacing as the cheap alcohol burned down his esophagus. He wondered how long it would take him to get used to the awful stuff. With any luck, he wouldn't be sticking around long enough to find out.
Ball bearings clicked as he spun on his stool, leaning his elbow on the bar. The bartender, a midnight-black androgyn with a flap of skin grafted onto their right cheek which they wore pulled across their mouth and buttoned to their left, cocked their head, contemplating the next move. They were the only decent surround player Tak had found so far in the Undercity, but they still gave Tak the creeps. Though, to be honest, most of the customers in The Aqueduct did.
Near the door, a table of chameleon dock workers passed a cintaweed joint. Tak wrinkled his nose at the acrid stench as he watched the violet smoke curl lazy loops around their surgically implanted muscles and thick, greasy necks. On a stool at the far end of the bar, a silver-haired bag lady hunched and muttered to herself, her many sweaters frayed and torn. Then there was the gearjoiner.
"You got a problem?"
Tak blinked as the woman snapped at him. She was all angles and joints: tall and thin with a centimeter of bright blue hair fuzzing her scalp. She wore railroad-conductor overalls over a low-necked gray undershirt, exposing a delicate tracery of blue veins beneath her pale, translucent skin. Her eyes were a startling shade of emerald.
But that wasn't the part that made his skin crawl.
Her left arm ended in a ring of inflamed skin just above the elbow, gleaming loops and wires weaving through the surface. Below this awkward melding only the metal remained. Her prosthetic was artfully crafted, visible gears meshing seamlessly just below the polished bronze surface. It twisted and curled in upon itself, tapering down to end in an ugly claw. Despite the awkward ending, it still managed to give Tak the horrifying impression that it was a living thing. He realized he'd been staring.
"No," he mumbled, turning his gaze back to the surround board. "Sorry."
"Tox, Gaj," the gearjoiner swore, swaying on her stool as she turned to the bartender. "It's getting so you'll let anyone in this joint." The bartender just blinked and continued polishing glasses, waiting for Tak to make his next move.
Tak hunched his shoulders self-consciously. His clean haircut and unblemished skin marked him as an outsider.
When you had a Strata name, you never needed to leave the compound. You could just drift from day to day, believing the whole world was glass, steel, and perfectly landscaped gardens. Safe and secure behind the high compound walls.
It had been almost three weeks since he lost his name, lost his whole world. He felt exposed out here in the Undercity. Vulnerable.
The bag lady was ranting about little monsters inside her blood, "More, Bessie. Bring us more, they says. Never happy, those ones. Never stop, never rest."
Tak shook his head and took a sip of his ralto.
"At least I'm coherent," he offered the gearjoiner. "That's gotta be worth something."
"Some of the most productive members of society have been madmen, historically speaking," she slurred. "Coherence is a highly overrated trait."
"Yeah? Then why aren't you talking to her?" Tak waved his glass in the direction of the bag lady. "By your definition, she must be a scamming genius."
"I'm sure she is," the girl shot back, unfazed. "Unfortunately, I am not on her level. She's operating on a whole 'nother plane of existence. Probably talks to ghosts and astral projections."
"Astral projections," Tak scoffed. "That's good."
"Don't laugh. There are more wonders in this world than are dreamed of in your little strat-baby brain."
"Oh, I see. You're OK with crazy bag ladies, but you draw the line at honest, hardworking people."
"Honest? Have you looked at the city around you? Have you noticed how nothing works? Whose fault would you say that is?"
Tak glanced away from her and raised his glass to his lips, letting the fingers of his other hand drift down to trace the worn satchel hanging beside him. The soft, familiar texture of the leather was comforting. The satchel was the last thing his father had ever given him, his last remaining tie to the life he'd been born into. It contained his grandfather's pocket watch and smuggled copies of his project notes. The failure of that project had lost Tak his name, and fixing it was his only hope of winning his name back.
He'd grown up in the Seyastrat compound back in Newcape. He'd only been a first-gen kid, his father a low-ranking maintenance tech hired during the expansion when Seyastrat swallowed Tandistrat, but it had been enough. His father's job had gotten them inside the walls, and given the whole family the right to bear the Seyastrat surname. Their passport to everything they had ever wanted.
Tak Seyastrat had received an excellent education, with his natural inclinations pulling him toward science, music, and art. He'd made simple viruses in his bedroom, cranked out angsty, feedback-loop-heavy crap on his keyboard, and sketched dark landscapes with expensive carbonpens. Whining and bitching the whole time about how he never got to leave the compound, never got to see the real world.
Well, he was seeing it now. And if he couldn't figure out a way to get his surname back, it was the only thing he'd be seeing for the rest of his life.
His eyes wandered over the newssheet sitting atop the bar. There was a story about a woman being eaten by an escalator. It showed the big hole through which she'd fallen into the guts of the thing, including a closeup of the sharp-toothed gears meshing. Tak shuddered. He'd hate to be the janitor on shift at that place. Beside it was a picture of some kind of protest, a crowd of angry people with signs yelling up at a line of black-armored troops that stood atop the Mastrat compound wall.
"So you're one of those?" Tak turned the picture toward the gearjoiner. "Screaming about how everything is always someone else's fault? Just because the Strata make nice things and the people who work there are clean and well fed, it's their fault that some people are not? We didn't make the world, you know. We just live in it."
The girl stared at him for a long moment, then shook her head and spat. "You have got to be the dumbest toxer I have ever met."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
She rolled her eyes and lost her balance, toppling sideways off her stool. Tak dove forward instinctively, but flinched away from touching her bronze arm and failed to catch her, ending up on the floor beside her instead. He did manage to keep her from knocking her head on the pocked iron legs of the stool, at least.
"Easy there. You hurt?"
"Just my dignity," the gearjoiner said, laughing. "Good catch. Thanks."
"Yeah, no problem."
Her eyes widened at something behind him. "Hey!"
Tak turned to see a guttersnipe disappearing through the doorway, dirty fingers curled around the amber leather of his satchel.
"Stop!" He lurched out onto the landing in time to see the kid leap down the last flight of stairs, black hair flying as they hit the ground running.
Tak pounded between stained brick walls, vaulting piles of rubbish and puddles that gleamed with rainbow-sheen putrescence. Down alleys, around corners, across vacant lots and over fences, the guttersnipe forever a flap of ragged cloth vanishing around the next turning. He gasped for air, each breath a stabbing pain between his ribs, his heart hammering so hard he thought it would punch right through his chest. Still he pushed on, sweat sponging out of him, his burning thighs heavy as logs.
He couldn't give up. That satchel was all he had.
He pursued the thief into a shantytown, dodging clotheslines and rusty bicycles. The sharp eyes of feral children tracked his passage from every stoop and nook.
An entire city block had been leveled here, opening a raw wound to the sky. Destitute people had pieced together shelters from the remnants of fallen buildings, like termites burrowing into things left behind. Jagged plywood, rotting boards, stacks of brick, mud, glass, scraps of metal, and fractured cinder blocks had been pieced into the patchwork walls of eclectic dwellings. Many were no more than lean-tos, while others had mushroomed into full-fledged multi-room homes, with bright curtains billowing in the windows. Some even had second stories, festooned with staring children that perched like gargoyles. The small part of Tak's mind that wasn't panicking goggled at the astounding ingenuity on display.
He had no idea where he was. His quarry had fled along a twisting tiger's-tail path, turning and doubling back so frequently that he had become lost almost immediately. Nothing around him looked familiar anymore; the shantytown could be in the eastern desert for all he knew. The guttersnipe's back was his only guide now, his lifeline in a sea of human refuse.
That thought frightened him, and he willed his wooden legs to go faster.
Rounding a lumpy house that looked like it was made of dried feces, he was rewarded for his effort. Just ahead, a large sewer pipe yawned out of a dirt embankment, its mouth closed off by a rusty grating of vertical bars. Between Tak and the pipe, the way was clear, and only five steps away bobbed the head of the thief, covered in a thick snarl of black hair. Tak put every remaining drop of energy into his next steps, and flung himself onto the back of the street urchin. They hit the ground in a dusty tumble.
The guttersnipe thrashed and hissed, and Tak struggled to get a hold on their writhing limbs. He managed to use his weight to pin them down and found himself looking into the frantic black eyes of a smudge-faced girl. A network of thin black veins lurked beneath the skin of her cheeks, snaking like some vile, subcutaneous watershed. Tak froze in horror. She took the opportunity to spit a gob of phlegm into his eye, causing him to jerk back his hands for just a moment.
A moment was all she needed.
Her small foot kicked straight up into his nose. Pain and blood exploded across his face, dropping him like a cannonball. The girl scrambled away from his grasp. He tried to follow, but a swarm of guttersnipes swooped to the aid of one of their own, their small limbs kicking at his feet, tumbling him back down onto the dirt. They pelted him with rocks and clods of dirt. Curled helplessly on his side, he watched through a mewling haze of blood and tears as the girl slipped between the bars of the sewer pipe and was gone.
Tak's head throbbed as he stumbled through the gloaming. He'd tried to follow the girl, but the bars blocking the sewer pipe were too close together for him to fit through, and no amount of pushing, pulling, kicking, or screaming had managed to dislodge them. Then he'd thought to question the guttersnipes who'd tripped him, but the dirty children had evaporated into the shantytown without a trace. In despair, he'd finally dragged his aching body into the nearest bar and set about wrapping his pain in a thick coat of liquid insulation.
That had been hours ago.
He was pretty sure his nose was broken, and tomorrow it would hurt like hell. But for now he'd put enough ralto in his gut to float his head up into the clouds; it was tethered to his body by only the thinnest of threads.
He flinched as he caught his reflection in a passing window. His straight black hair was matted and sticking up everywhere. The ripped knees of his filthy pants gaped. His nose, mouth, and chin were caked with dried blood, and his almond eyes were swollen, the skin around them turning an ugly purple-black. His face had become disturbingly thin. He looked like some starving person who had been beaten and robbed.
Which, in fact, he had. By a child.
There were things, he knew, that he would have to face up to soon. Things like his lack of position and his dwindling credits. Things that people generally agreed were high up on the hierarchy of needs. They were important things, and they would definitely have to be dealt with one day.
He turned away from the window. Today was not that day.
He steered a course through darkening skyscraper-canyons, riding a river of self-pity. He thought he saw a familiar face cross an intersection a block down, and paused as it disappeared behind the corner of a dingy blue building. The man had looked like Boderick Mastrat, his supervisor back at the lab, and the only person he knew who could consistently best him at surround. A man Tak had considered a friend, right up until the day Boderick had taken away his name.
He shook his head at the ridiculous thought. There was no reason for Boderick to be out in the Undercity. His brain was just throwing up ghosts of the past to haunt him.
He drifted forward, doing his best to think of nothing at all. The day had cooled considerably when the sun dipped below the west hills, and the wind spun little cyclones of dust and debris up the urban corridors. He didn't pay any attention to where he was going, letting the liquor carry him forward, enjoying the pendulum weight of his arms swinging in loose rhythm.
Losing the satchel had been the final humiliation. The bottom rung of a ladder he'd been descending ever since the day he left Seyastrat.
It had been winter then, on the day of his departure. A dry, windy winter, as they generally were on the high desert plateau of Newcape. His father had stood tall and rigid on the snowy platform, serious in his black wool overcoat. His mother had been a crumpled bundle of furs, blotting tears with a yellow scarf. Their smiles might have been carved in ice as they waved goodbye, watching their only son relinquish his claim to the Seyastrat name his father had worked so hard to obtain. Gambling everything on a thousand-kilometer journey, down into the warm land to the east, bound for an internship that Tak had been sure would end with him being adopted into Mastrat, giving him an even more prestigious surname to pass on to his own children someday.
He remembered the way the clouds of steam from the engine had boiled around him, warm against his neck as he leaned out the window, waving for all he was worth. He remembered turning his face forward, the snowy plateau blurring behind tears as the icy wind froze in his nostrils. Clutching his new leather satchel to his chest, ready to take on the world. He'd hardly considered the risk, buoyed by his graduating position at the top of his class and the endless confidence of youth.
It was a good thing that an accident had claimed his parents on their way home from the station. They'd died holding on to that image, believing that their son was destined to be a success.
His internship had started well enough, with excitement all around. He'd been sure that his ideas on slime-molds would lead to the big breakthrough in wireless communication the world was searching for. The lightning-strike discovery that would make his reputation and earn him the Mastrat surname. Every morning he practically ran to the lab, and he was often the last to leave at night. Boderick Mastrat, the section head, took him under his wing, and a beautiful rising star named Lauren took him to her bed.
But in the cutthroat world of the Strata, results were the only thing that mattered. After a year of hearing that he was "this close" to a breakthrough, management had finally lost patience with his lack of results. Boderick stopped meeting him for coffee and surround. Lauren found another rising star to fill her bed. Hurt and confused, he arrived at the lab one day to find his identification card no longer valid. They had released him from his Mastrat contract, brushing him from their fingers like a crumb.
Making matters worse, he didn't even have the option of slinking home with his tail between his legs. He'd renounced his Seyastrat surname when he moved away from Newcape, and his parents' death had left him without a family sponsor to help him get reinstated.
He was an outcast without a surname, with no recourse but to descend into the grim wastes of the Undercity. Fallen into the same poverty-stricken world his father had worked so hard to escape.
And now, even his satchel was lost. His life's work and his last connection to his family, vanished together down a sewer pipe.
A fitting end, he thought, to a saga of utter futility.
He didn't notice the streets growing more crowded around him, until he rounded a corner and found himself surrounded by a throng of protesters in a wide cobblestone square. Huge floodlights shone down from the fifteen-meter-high expanse of the Mastrat compound wall, casting the dark bones of the new aqueduct into stark silhouette above the crowd. The curl of the nearly completed channel ran parallel to the outside of the wall, and the new aqueduct's iron legs towered another five meters above the great barrier.
A wiry bogman approached him, holding a sign that said, "Wet bogs feed cities." His blue lips were drawn into a grim line, his soft flipper-feet encased in tough rubber boots.
The man said, "Are you with the wetlands?"
Before Tak could gather his soaked wits to reply, the peal of air horns shattered the cool evening.
Clouds of toxic gas bloomed. Tak got caught in the blast of a sonic cannon and fell to his knees, clamping his hands over his ears. He coughed and howled, his eyes on fire. A spray of water soaked his shirt as a firehose was unleashed on the protesters around him, flinging them away like cheap dominoes. Then a phalanx of soldiers came charging out of the compound, black-masked apparitions in the clouds of gas, their heavy shockclubs rising and falling in blue electric arcs.
Blinded and deafened, streaming tears and snot like a five-year-old, Tak turned in helpless circles, wondering where the ordered world he knew had gone. A shockclub cracked him across the shoulder and he convulsed, crumpling into a fetal ball as more blows rained down upon his back and legs. Terrified, he lay stunned by the savagery of the world he'd been dropped into, as the violence raged on and on and on. He feared it was never going to end.
Copyright 2022 by Words on the Wind, LLC