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White Sailors

by Peter Jerrim

 
CHAPTER 2

And so to Beni's Place, away from the make believe world of nat versus glit, and into the kingdom of the bar where beers and martinis, meads and wines flowed with the drugs that flooded the body with relief.

Lequila carried the glit like a rag over her shoulder. She brushed the compliments aside and found a quiet corner where she could recharge the glit and calm down.

'And now I'm going to pump you, you little weasel,' she said to the glit, who appeared quite happy with the idea. 'First, the music in the tower. That was no cheap trick. How did you do it?'

The glit had brightened up a bit. It sat on a wooden chair, opposite Lequila. A table was between them. The centre of the glit's chest was level with the top of the table. 'My name is Bryan,' it said. 'Call me by my name and we will get on much better.'

'Bryan...you're a boy glit!'

'A man, actually, as you could have noticed. Just because you nats are so...well developed.'

'All right, Bryan. I'm Lequila. Now tell me about the music. I want to know.'

'We should start with the basics: what, who, when:

--Toccata und Fuge d-moll, Johann Sebastian Bach, German, born 1685;

--Apparition de L'eglise éternelle, Olivier Messiaen, French, born 1903;

--a piece from Volumina, Györky Ligeti, Hungarian, born 1923;

--Karnyalimenya Nineteen, Naoya Hirota, Australian, born 2014. Do you want me to print out the scores for you?'

'The composers are all men.'

'So? I can't help that. It was a long time ago. Actually I should have played a bit of Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrament. You would have found the rhythm interesting...'

'Bryan where did you learn to play the organ?'

Bryan shifted in his seat. He fiddled with the charger that spooled like spaghetti from his backside. He drummed his fingers on the table. 'Anyone could do that. Any glit, that is. When we learn about music we learn to play as well. At least the skin does all the hard work, but the mind needs to know a fair bit to go along with it.'

'So you'd never done it before? You just responded to the organ...saw the possibilities. It seemed pretty profound to me.'

Lequila slurped the last of the globe of fungent that she had picked up at the bar. A drop of raspberry dribbled down her chin and dripped onto her stretchy. The spill was immediately absorbed and the material was clean again. She put her elbows on the table and pulled her stretchy where it clung graphically to her abdomen. When she released it it smacked back hard on her stomach, revealing a new configuration of flexed muscles. Then she relaxed.

'That's better. I thought you were going to do me permanent damage with that bear hug, after we fell from the tower. You're strong when you want to be, aren't you?'

'Well, again, it's the skin that does it. The me inside the suit is weak by itself. That's the whole idea--to see how unified we can become with our skin. Watch this.'

The glit opened his mouth and sucked in the transparent film that had covered it all the time he had been speaking. There was a faint sheen on his teeth and tongue. 'I can even eat when it's like this, although I would only bother with food once or twice a year. The rest of the time it's just photoexposure and impregnation from the skin...and the daily charge, of course. Excuse me, but I've been meaning to ask a nat this for a long time...does my breath smell?'

'About as much as my stretchy when I threw it to the lion. Not enough to notice. I forgot the stretchy cleans itself automatically--look how one's mind deteriorates in panic.'

'My mind didn't deteriorate,' Bryan said. 'I was just tired.'

'OK. But back to the music. My brain is au naturel; it's not computer-assisted like yours. But I still want to know everything. As much as possible. That's the only way to get my form points.'

'Your what?'

'My credit. The more I know, the more I can do, the better I am--all on my little lonesome without any implants. The more credit I can get the better position I'm in to trade with the Manse.'

'But you can't be totally natural. You must have a sensory modification input like me, otherwise you wouldn't be able to see anything when you're in the Cube. No lioness this afternoon, no tower, no city, no cloud of blood.'

'A sensory input isn't important by itself, it's what you do with it that counts,' said Lequila. 'What cloud of blood?'

'Your eyes must really have been closed. Impressive! You were in a trance and came out of it fast enough to grab me.'

'Come on, Bryan--the cloud of blood?'

'A sign, I suppose. The city sort of vibrated, and a cloud of something that could have been blood came up from it, like...vertical vomit. Then it floated away and turned into rain. It probably wasn't real.'

'No, of course not. Neither was the tower nor the organ nor the lion...'

'Yes they were. You know everything's real if it has time to move into place. It's made from pseudo but it's real enough. Real enough to bite. The fabric can adjust faster than a human can run.'

'But not fall. Hence the time for the ground at the bottom of the tower to turn into the lion's cage. We arrived too soon! Why didn't they teach us all this at school?'

'You might go to the most advanced academy in the Sleeve but you still can't learn about something before it's been invented. That's why they pay us so much for the nat and glit game. They're testing it all out at the same time as they're testing us. Where are you going?'

'I'm still thirsty, Bryan. You've given me a hard time today. And in Beni's Place on New Year's Eve you have to go to the bar if you want anything. Keep that stuff plugged into your bum, darling. I'll be right back.'

Lequila pushed backwards into the throng. It consisted of neither nats nor glits but ordinary people, some in fancy dress, warming up for the Big Event. Military muscle with the night off mixed with country hicks dressed in their Outlander best. Hunchbacked toadies swept the ground with ritual flourishes before priests who sipped their martinis dry. A gaggle of nineteenth century-looking university students was pushing into an alcove into which fifty or sixty people were already squeezed, gyrating slowly in incremental dance movements. The atmosphere was compressed with sweat and excitement. A cluster of young women had congealed around a few males, one of whom had sprayed sexiscent into the air. The ruckus of screams and giggles came in waves that synchronised with the excitement around the bar.

'Mancer.'

'Bitch!'

The words spat through the air like bits of laboratory animals shot from a centrifuge.

The tumult lulled for a moment and then resumed. Lequila had arrived at the left hand end of the bar in time to buy a cooler. A woman dressed in black grasped her by the arm.

'Don't look now,' Marta spoke in Lequila's ear, 'but your target is here. What incredible luck.'

Lequila eased herself around to locate the source of the nastiness but the blue back and elbows of a home guard hove into the bar and blocked her view. Six globes of liquid of various sizes rolled like jellyfish where he deposited them on the bar.

'A squirt of arnica in each of these, Ben.' The guard lurched back and fuzzed a hand over his face.

The barman's eyes darted at the patch of colour that glowed under the skin on the guard's forehead. 'That's ridiculous, Hamish,' he squawked. 'Your disc will turn red before I've fixed the first drink. You've got the whole night to go. Don't blow your talent before you've started.'

'I've been to the manicurist's, Ben, so there's no worries about talent. Ten mils of arnica in each one and hurry.'

Sliding to the end of the bar and back on his trundle stool, Ben dealt another dozen drinks and three scent bombs. At each transaction he skimmed his fingers against his forehead as he half-mouthed the price. The tip of his left index finger had a glow that corresponded with the glow on his forehead. Then he touched fingers with the customer who touched his own forehead in return with the quick reflex of habit.

'Mancers, dear?' Ben warbled. 'Well, if we've been delivering direct to the Manse then I suppose we can afford the best my little hovel can offer.' He touched the guard's fingers then took a syringe from under the bar and injected some tobacco-brown liquid into each of the transparent bags. Before emulsifying, it spread through the drink like a thread of blood.

'I hope your friends appreciate what they're getting.'

The guard clutched the bags, three in each hand, and tottered in a half circle to reorient himself. One of the bags slipped from his grasp and he lunged to catch it. His head bumped into Lequila's backside, propelling her straight at the edifice of Marta's chest. The unexpected impact made Lequila squeeze her peppercream cooler too hard. Drink spurted out but Marta took a ballet step backwards and the liquid fell to the floor and was absorbed.

Only Marta's big hands appeared to move as she steadied Lequila and repositioned her drink. Fat rabbit meat, thought Lequila. So pink.

She shouted after the stumbling guard, 'Before we were so rudely interrupted...' but he had gone on without apology so she licked the fluff from the end of the tube and turned to her companion. 'You were about to show me something.'

'A target for tonight,' Marta replied.

'But I'm interviewing a glit. I don't have time...'

'Interview it on the run then.'

'Use it tonight?'

'Let it show us what it can do...and you can keep it as long as you want to in the New Year.'

'I suppose it won't hurt to ask. All right. Which am I looking for,' Lequila said, 'the bitch, or the other one?'

'The Flame Academy deals with neither. Remember our motto?'

'Observe, think, act. I see a friend over there. That spells business. Come and say hello.' Lequila pushed Marta away from the bar, calling over her shoulder, 'Darling, how are you?'

The black wedge of Marta's enormous breasts ploughed through the crowd. Even the military stepped aside. So did the students, the technicians, the lecturers, the fungunauts, the slime merchants--and those who traded in human flesh. Then the gap in the crowd closed behind the founder of the academy and the throng returned to its cocktails and scandal.

A breeze of silk shimmered in front of Lequila. She looked up at the chin of a merchant, and the emerald disc that glowed pale in the centre of his forehead. His dark eyes flicked vertically over her legs--wide feet, perfect calves, small knees, slabs of thighs. They assessed more slowly the sprinter's buttocks, the narrow waist, the V-shaped torso, big shoulders, pretty head, dazzling smile, and the curves that pressed beneath her stretchy.

'That's loose of you, girl,' he said, 'to attempt so simple a subterfuge in the presence of your mistress.'

'Machesti!' cried Marta. 'It's been years.'

The giants locked then sprang apart, laughing. The merchant held Marta at arm's length and then kissed her on each cheek.

Marta continued. 'Not since that night at Runia when we blew up the bridge.'

'No. We did meet once after that. Don't you remember?'

'When you were Ambassador to the Outlands? That was a long time ago.'

'And you were recruiting for your school of ex-crims and orphans,' said Machesti. 'I wondered why you couldn't keep away from the Outlands. You'd had enough of prisons so I thought it could only have been me.'

'Just because I went on vacation after putting down a rebellion or two didn't mean I was tired of the work.'

'Nor the pay. I should have known that talent was your motivation.' The big man laughed again. Fat rippled under his robe. 'One can never get too much talent, can one? But introduce me to the young person here and then I'll buy you both a drink.'

'I'm Lequila Tadonidis, Your Eminence.' Lequila bowed as deeply as she could in the crush of merrymakers.

'One of my better pupils,' Marta shouted. 'Although she has yet to learn not to introduce herself to a superior. Perhaps she could make amends by getting us both a tornado--and one for yourself, Lequila. You may touch my disc.'

Lequila slid toward the bar.

'Nice,' said the merchant. 'Very nice.'

'This one's a worker,' said Marta. 'She belongs to a group of my students who are being developed to their maximum natural physical and mental potential.'

'Doesn't every school say that?'

'I've a good contract with the Manse with this, but we'll keep that between ourselves for now.'

'She's all natural? Impressive.'

'So hands off what doesn't belong to you.' Marta reached up and slipped her hand inside the merchant's robe and stroked his chest. 'Anyway, big boy--what brings you to town? Business or pleasure?'

'There's a difference? Dear Marta, you of all people must know what's been going on here lately. How could I keep away?'

'If you're referring to the Manse then I must say I'm surprised. That's not your scene.'

'You'd agree it's permissible to maximise benefits that flow from the maintenance of essential services. Ah...the tornadoes. Thank you...Lequila.' Machesti lifted the globe of red liquid and pressed it to his forehead. 'I drink your health, ladies, and to a profitable relationship in the New Year.'

'So do we,' said Marta. 'So do we.'

 

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