The Itch by A.C. Arquin. Copyright 2022 by Words on the Wind, LLC
Lauren's hand was soft in his, the sunlight warm on his face. Cherry blossoms drifted in the spring breeze, filling the air with their scent. Cinders crunched along the path beneath their feet. At the far end of the park, Tak could just make out Boderick, lounging at a stone table. The surround board was spread before him, little mounds of white and black stones awaiting Tak's arrival.
Lauren pushed a piece of candy between his lips, letting her hand linger so he could suck the melted chocolate from her fingertips. Arousal stirred within him.
A girl approached along the path, a wispy ragamuffin clutching something to her chest. Tak frowned, wondering where the girl had come from.
He glanced around, looking for the nearest security patrol. Instead, he found dozens of guttersnipes surrounding them. Thick black veins layered in bas-relief over their cheeks. Lauren screamed as the children began clawing at their clothing, tearing it away in strips. One girl took their buttons one by one, placing them neatly into a coin purse, her small eyes very calm and serious.
A white-coated doctor grabbed the nearest child, yanking the boy away by the hair.
"Don't worry, sir. Everything's under control." He bared ghastly teeth in a rodent smile and plunged a syringe into the boy's neck. The boy's face went black and he melted, flowing into the ground like ink.
The earth started to churn, the teeth of enormous gears tearing up through dirt and grass. Before his eyes a guttersnipe was swallowed up, ground into a horrible pulp between implacable gears. Tak stumbled as the path pitched beneath his feet. Lauren screamed and he turned, reaching out his hand...
Tak started awake into pitch darkness. He lay staring up at the invisible ceiling, his heart hammering in his throat, wondering where he was.
As soon as the name crossed his lips, he knew it was wrong. It all came flooding back to him.
Where he was. Who he was. And, more importantly, who he wasn't anymore. Despair bore down, crushing him beneath its boot heel. He groped for the ralto bottle and took a long pull, clutching the burn in his gut like a lifeline. After a couple more pulls, the boot let up just enough for him to breathe again. Groaning, he sat up, grinding the heels of his hands into gritty eyes. He gasped as the bones of his broken nose shifted.
He scratched at his neck and fumbled for the lantern, cranking on the key until the filament started to glow. He wondered if this was ever going to get any easier.
Moving debris covered the floor of Tak's room like the broken carapace of a dead urban insect. He sat cross-legged on the edge of his stained futon, the cold of the cement floor seeping into his thin calves, and studied the detritus to find some kind of tea-leaf meaning in the wreckage of his life. Cheap slat boxes were scattered about the room, their insides scooped out, twine-festooned shells disemboweled and hollow. A low wooden chest crouched before him, walnut-stained sides bound by leather straps and brass latches. He'd saved this one for last, the box containing the final remnants of his hopes and dreams.
He tilted his head back and pressed the bottle to his lips, letting the ralto burn down into his gut, a warm fist against the chill. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and pretended the tears were caused by the ralto.
It had taken him weeks to muster the willpower to unpack. Weeks of lying on the sheetless futon, staring at the cracks in the ceiling while empty ralto bottles multiplied like rats around him. He'd thought that finally getting unpacked would energize him. Starting over, a clean slate. World full of possibilities.
What a crock of shit.
He kicked the chest away from him and watched it slide across the dirty floor, gathering snarls of twine and dust before coming to rest in the corner.
His room was no more than a glorified closet in a decrepit old building that was one step away from being a squat. Ancient brown water stains snaked wavy fingers across the ceiling, connecting dark patches of mildew to the holes where the plaster had fallen in, exposing bent nails and rotting beams. A black duffel bag still contained most of his clothes. He'd placed everything else on a set of shelves he'd made out of scraps of wood salvaged from the vacant lot next door.
A tiny cubicle. A filthy futon. A duffel bag. Scrap wood shelves. And a wheezing, pint-sized refrigerator whose winding spring had lost most of its tension, containing one egg, a pitcher of milk, half a loaf of moldy bread, and a burned-out lightbulb.
This was the sum total of his existence.
No Mastrat internship. No steel and glass high-rise apartment. No safety, no security. No girlfriend.
He took another pull from the bottle. The crushing anxiety eased another notch.
Lauren had probably made the right move, abandoning his sinking ship to climb aboard someone else's schooner. Mastrat was no place for sentimental fairy tales.
It wasn't until he was sitting in the communal kitchen waiting for the coffee water to boil that he realized what had woken him up. There were workmen on the floors above him. He could hear the thumping of hammers and the high whine of spring-powered saws.
Wonderful. The sound of his living situation going from bad to worse.
His head started to pound, so he took the coffee back to his room and splashed some more ralto into it. The clock said it was four p.m., meaning he still had a few hours to kill before he could deliver Blossom's message.
He paced his cubicle, trying to figure out what to do.
He gathered the empty moving boxes and carried them out to the vacant lot, then put the last of his clothes on the shelves and shoved the now empty duffel into the small space underneath. He drank more coffee. Braving the communal bathroom at the end of the hall, he took a quick, cold shower. A stranger with purple-black eyes and dirty white bandages across his nose peered back at him from the warped tin mirror over the sink. Rot, he looked like hell.
He put on a clean black shirt and grey pants. He'd thought that being clean for the first time in days would make him feel better, but it didn't. So he wound the spring on his little keyboard and played a few songs, hoping they might cheer him up.
But the only songs he could remember were sad, and he had to put the keyboard aside to cry halfway through the second song, discovering in the process how unpleasant it was when your broken nose filled with snot.
Afterward he felt slightly better and drank more ralto to accelerate the healing process. He paced around his room some more, and when that proved unsatisfactory he expanded his route to include the hall and the kitchen. The construction upstairs was growing steadily louder, making his head throb even beneath the muffling layer of ralto.
He went back into his room, carefully closing and locking the door behind him. He took a deep breath, gathered his courage, and pulled the wooden chest from the corner where he'd kicked it. Hesitantly, almost reverently, he clicked the brass latches open and hinged back the lid. The interior of the box was padded and lined with blue felt. It contained an assortment of laboratory paraphernalia, including test tubes, slides, spoons, stands, vials of powdered chemicals, copper tubing, a small heating element, and glass jars with variously colored biological samples. Every bit of it had been stolen from Mastrat. If anyone from his former lab discovered just how many things he'd taken out with him, he could face breach-of-contract charges. Jail would not be out of the question.
Not that anyone would be looking for him. He doubted anyone at Mastrat spared a thought for him one way or the other.
He took the instruments out and carefully set them up, placing the jars and vials atop one of his shelves. He hung a beaker on a forked stand, and threaded lengths of copper tubing through cork stoppers. It took him over an hour to get everything laid out, and when he was done he looked with satisfaction at the gleaming instruments and tubing, the box of microscopic slides, the bright, neatly labeled vials of colored powders and liquids, the perfect rows of specimen jars full of molds and slimes.
He held a jar containing a rust orange slime up to the light. The slime sat beneath a layer of water at the bottom of the jar, unmoving, unresponsive. More like a thick mud than something alive. But he was convinced that the secret was in there somewhere. Somehow slimes and molds communicated, regardless of the distance between them. Well, "communicated" might be too strong a word. But they reacted. Together. Different slimes in different jars reacted in a synchronized manner to external stimuli applied to one of them. As if they were sharing the experience, somehow. "Communicating," for lack of a better term.
Despite his best efforts, he'd never been able to reproduce the experimental results reliably. Sometimes the slimes did not react, even when exposed to stimuli to which they had reacted previously. Which meant that perhaps they hadn't been reacting at all, or hadn't been reacting to the things that he thought they were reacting to, but were instead reacting to something else entirely. It was maddening.
Mastrat had given up on his hypothesis, deciding that his research was nothing more than a waste of resources. And so, by extension, was Tak.
He didn't believe it. Couldn't believe it. This little jar of slime was his ticket out of here, the carriage that would carry him back to the life he was supposed to be living.
He paced around the room, tapping on the lid of the jar with his fingertip as he thought. Maybe if he—? No. Well, what about—? Ridiculous. Oh! What if—?
He stopped, watching the water swirl in the jar. Yes, that had possibilities. He turned to set up an experiment—and stopped. He took in the splintered shelf, the cracked plaster wall, the single dim bulb of the weary brass lamp.
He dropped his head and sighed. What was the point? He didn't even have a desk to work on. He might as well put lipstick on a pig as call this rothole a laboratory. He'd never be able to continue his work in here. Never get his job back, his girl back, or his life back.
He needed some air. And a drink. That, at least, was something to which his current environment was perfectly suited.
* * *
Stepping outside, Tak discovered that evening had fallen, and the River District was coming alive. Nondescript doors that spent daylight hours closed and locked were now thrown open, beckoning to passersby with dimly lit interiors smelling of vice and illicit commerce. Shadows asserted themselves in the spaces between sparse lightpoles, clinging to furtive forms that scuttled along narrow streets.
He let the crowd buoy him along, moving vaguely in the direction of his rendezvous but paying minimal attention to where he was at the moment. It was the motion that mattered.
Staying one step ahead of his thoughts.
He was surprised at how many people were out. At how many people there seemed to be in the Undercity in general. Growing up inside compound walls, he'd been led to believe that most of the world was contained inside the Strata. The news, books, and entertainment only talked about life inside: a mirror reflecting itself. He'd always believed in their depictions of the slums outside the compounds as dangerous and sparsely populated. A handful of primitive imbeciles scratching out a living in the mud.
Clearly this was not the case. Dirty and primitive, perhaps. Dangerous, without a doubt. But sparsely populated? As far as he could tell, there were more people living in the Undercity than inside the Mastrat compound atop the west hills. Hundreds of thousands of beings living in desperation and squalor. It boggled his mind.
A ragged guttersnipe brushed past his hip and was swallowed by the crowd. He reflexively checked his money pouch, even though he'd carefully tucked it inside his waistband. You could never be too careful. The dirty little scammers were everywhere: fighting and stealing, lurking in the corners like cats. He almost never saw them laughing or playing. There was no time. They had to be quick to make it, fighting for every scrap.
Like the girl who'd taken his satchel. He didn't blame her; not really. She was trying to survive. He just wished it hadn't been his satchel that she snatched.
A man on a soapbox had gathered a crowd beneath a gaslight. Tak slowed to listen.
"Look to the children. They are the messengers. The harbingers of the great change! It has been written in the Book of Gears: They shall bear the mark. The time is come!"
Tak grimaced. The man was another Gear Cultist. He shouldered his way through the throng, shaking his head. The fanatics were popping up everywhere, waiting for their mechanical god to come save them. He frowned, remembering Blossom and her bowl of tiny gears, his blood dark upon the copper teeth. It was astounding the things that desperate people would believe. They might as well believe in a guttersnipe revolution.
Of course, what did that make him? Here he was, delivering a message for one of the fanatics in question, in payment for a subterranean gear-reading. Darkly, he chuckled at himself.
Desperate people indeed.
He finally found the Grotto and ducked in with a sigh, glad to escape the tide of humanity on the street. A short flight of stairs led him to a dim underground forest. The bar was bigger than he'd expected, the rear walls swallowed by gloom. Subterranean trees dotted the space, trunks illuminated by pools of green light, roots cracking and bucking beneath the sticky weight of the earthen floor. Their branches entwined with the low ceiling, like old friends supporting each other, while the tops of the trees were simply missing, lost somewhere in the space above the bar.
He stepped up to the bar, which also seemed to have grown right out of the floor, and ordered a ralto from the round, mottled being behind it. He scratched at his neck and felt an itchy, swollen lump behind his ear. Damn futon must be infested. Things were eating him up while he slept.
"I'm looking for someone named Ca'riv?"
The bartender didn't miss a beat. "Never heard of him."
Tak sighed and slid a coin across the bar. The bartender eyed him blankly until Tak placed a second coin beside the first, then shrugged and waved a hand toward the murky depths of the bar. "Out back."
"Thanks." Tak grimaced as he scooped up his drink and moved into the gloom. His coin purse was getting light; he really needed to find a job soon.
A breeze carrying a whiff of moisture tickled his cheek as he wound his way back between the trunks. He stepped around a corner and stopped, surprised to find the open embrace of the night reaching for him.
A wide deck spread over the dark expanse of the river, which rushed and gurgled beneath the planks, carrying a cool breeze with it. A dozen round tables were scattered over the deck, each one illuminated by a single candle protected by a small globe. Flood walls supported the rectangular shapes of buildings along the banks, their regular geometry a bulwark against the emerging stars. Tak turned his gaze back to the river in time to see a long boat slip silently past, riding low beneath the weight of its cargo. It was quiet out here, and the patrons leaned forward over their tables, voices hushed by the steady whisper of the passing water, faces warm in the glow of the candles.
Everyone seemed to be having private, intense conversations, and Tak shied away from interrupting them. He had no idea which of them was Ca'riv anyway. Maybe if he observed for a while, it would come to him.
Tak moved to one side of the deck, heading for what looked to be the only empty table. It wasn't until he reached it that he realized it wasn't as empty as he'd thought. A solitary figure slumped, head down on the table, unmoving and apparently asleep.
He checked the other tables again. All full. He considered going back inside, but it was so wonderful out on the deck that the thought of sitting inside the crowded basement made him cringe. Granted, it was a pretty exceptional basement with the trees and everything, but still, a basement is a basement. He wanted to be out here in the open air, inhaling the cool evening breeze, listening to the quiet confessions of the river. And besides, his rendezvous was here.
"Um. Excuse me," he said softly.
The figure lying across the table didn't move.
"Excuse me," he tried again, raising his voice a notch. "Is this seat taken?"
Again there was no response. He wondered if the figure was dead.
He leaned forward. He couldn't see the face, but he could discern a tight black shirt, and a scaly and hairless back of the head. Perfect, a chameleon. A few more seconds of careful observation told him the back of the shirt was rising and falling in time with its breath. Oh good. Not dead, then.
He cautiously pulled the chair opposite the figure out from the table, keeping his eyes on the sleeping form. No response. He lowered himself down into it. Still nothing.
He exhaled a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and settled into his chair. The curved wooden slats reclined slightly, cupping his back in a very satisfactory way. He sipped his ralto and ran his eyes cautiously across the other patrons, then tilted his head back, peering up through the shadowy canyon of buildings at the long slice of sky that followed the path of the river.
Stars weren't something he'd seen much of in his life, not outside that one school trip to the planetarium anyway. It was too bright inside the compounds, the lamp posts and buildings too close together to ever grant a view of the night sky that wasn't washed out. His father would have said that the light of man outshone that of the heavens. He would have known, too, since it was his job to keep the lights burning inside the Seyastrat compound. Just a lowly technician job, but it produced results that you could see. Something you could be proud of.
His father had believed that people's role was to improve the natural world. To make things better. Nature, he said, was blind and brutish, an undirected cacophony of competition, with no regard for who won and who lost in the grand race to avoid extinction. Nature was a great innovator, but less adept at managing what it had wrought once life was up and running. Only humanity had the brains to see the big picture, to keep all the dissonant parts of the world in tune and humming together to make a greater whole than just the random sum of its parts.
Tak believed it too, which was why he'd been drawn to biology. That was what it all came down to, every living thing on the planet. Understand biology and you could understand everything.
Of course, there was still so much that they didn't understand. Science was like an onion: every layer peeled back exposed dozens of new questions beneath. The more they uncovered, the more they discovered they had left to learn.
Which was where the excitement lay, frankly. How boring would it be to have everything all figured out? No, the thrill was in the figuring. The discovery. The not knowing down which path the march of progress would take you next.
Like those slime molds. There was something important there. Some profound connection he couldn't quite pin down. He could feel it, like an itch at the back of his throat that he couldn't quite scratch.
He lowered his gaze from the stars, took a sip of ralto, and promptly choked on it. The person across the table was sitting up, staring down at him with golden eyes slit by vertical, reptilian pupils.
"What are you doing here?" the big chameleon demanded. He sat a full head higher than Tak, his skull wobbling on his neck like a jack-in-the-box.
"Um. Having a drink?" Tak measured the distance to the door with his eyes, wondering if he could outrun the man.
"And why—" The chameleon blinked, his reptilian eyes drifting over and around the space occupied by Tak's face, as if he were having trouble focusing. "Why are you... here?"
"Are you all right? You don't look very good."
Tak watched the big man sway. His skin looked wet in the candlelight. If he'd been human, Tak would have thought that maybe he had the flu. But in this case? It could be something as simple as a virus or as complex as a faulty skin patch. You could never be sure with chameleons.
"Doctor... gridsrrrrrrrrrrrr..." The chameleon's chin hit his chest and stayed there, his shoulders slumping sideways. Tak caught him before he fell out of his chair, leaning in hard to keep the big man's weight from carrying him down with it. The scaled skin felt cool and smooth beneath his fingertips. On a scientific level he was fascinated, but on a personal level he had to fight the urge to back away in horror.
"Excuse me," he said, turning to the other tables and raising his voice. "Does anyone know this person? He seems to be sick. Can someone take him to a doctor?"
"That's Ratz," a feminine voice supplied. "You outta just roll that bastard into the river."
"Funny, Dori," a dry accented voice clacked. "I am sure Ratz remember that next time you need extension. I help you."
A silhouette rose from a nearby table, the figure coming into focus as it approached Tak. It was squat, but thick and powerfully built. It wore a long, loose, sleeveless robe slit down the sides, and a long scarf looped around its neck and up over its head. Tak's heart almost stopped as it stepped into the circle of the candlelight and he saw the prominent brow ridge, and the hard shell sloping back over its forehead.
"Sand crab," he breathed.
"What you say?" the figure clacked in a dry rumble.
"I said, uh—nothing. Nothing." His mouth went dry, and he had to swallow three times to get his next words out. "I'm Tak. Nice to meet you."
"Ca'riv," the Sa'crabiton grunted.
"Ca'riv?" Well, at least something seemed to be working in his favor. "I have a message for you."
The Sa'crabiton went motionless, a snake about to strike. Menace rose off him like steam.
Tak forgot how to breathe.
"Message from who?"
"Um," Tak wheezed, his voice nearly inaudible. He licked his lips and tried again. "Blossom. Oh, but that's not really her name. Um... old woman. Lives in a basement. Blue eyes. Curly hair. Reads gears."
The Sa'crabiton remained motionless for a moment longer, his black eyes boring into Tak. He held out his hand, and Tak gingerly placed the note in it. He shivered as the light glinted over the wicked horned ridge running along Ca'riv's knuckles. The thick Sa'crab read the note, then refolded it and placed it in a pocket inside his cloak. Cocking his head, he regarded Tak curiously.
"You want left side or right?" Tak looked at the powerful man and swallowed. There didn't seem to be a graceful way to back out. "Left?"
Lifting Ratz was like lifting a tall, floppy bag of wet cement, and he groaned as they wrestled the big chameleon onto his feet. Ca'riv was shorter than Tak, which might have presented a problem given the chameleon's towering height. However, the Sa'crab seemed to make up for it in strength. Ca'riv looked as if he could have carried Ratz all by himself and not broken a sweat. His back was straight, his movements simple and easy as they maneuvered the limp chameleon through the bar. Which was great, because by the time they got Ratz up the stairs and out onto the street, Tak was panting like he had just run ten kilometers.
"Is the place we're going far?" He swiped his forearm across his streaming forehead.
"Depends what you think far is," Ca'riv clacked.
Tak wheezed forward into the night, his spine compressing with every step. He wondered how long it would take him to learn that it didn't pay to get involved in the Undercity. He hoped he would figure it out before his back gave out on him.