by Peter Jerrim
Every light had been extinguished. The trees in the many levels of the town's gardens gleamed with fungal afterglow. The last day had died and revellers waited for the dark hour of the year when, in silence, they would seek their accomplices and don costumes and masks to surprise the world when it woke from its unaccustomed sleep. On this night they forgot the past and ignored the urgent possibilities of the future.
Lequila found Bryan sitting beneath the lip of a bowl-shaped fountain in a park on the third level. His crystal-faceted skin glowed a pale green. He squinted up at her and grunted in recognition. Lequila bowed, coughed and waited.'Salutations,' said Bryan. 'Who is she who steps so lightly?'
'Ah, dark virgin, you should begin.' Lequila danced on one foot. 'You know the traditional greeting for tonight.'
Bryan stood, bowed and tried again.Ah, dark virgin,
Bryan gave an unnecessary cough.Who is she who lies so faint beneath the tree?
Who is she who laughs so brightly in the lea?
Who is she who steps so lightly in the night-time fear?'
'All right, all right,' Lequila growled. 'It's New Year's Eve--and we've got work to do.'
'Verily, dark virgin. Come to me, vision pure and holy. Come close and let me whipsy in your ear.'
'Bryan, have you been drinking? I didn't think glits were allowed. Now listen. While you were over-charging yourself in the bar my mistress gave me a target for tonight who is a devious, dangerous fellow. So I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask if you'll be helpful.'
'But I thought we were going to dress up and...'
'This will be just as much fun...'
Lequila took him by the hand and led him into the park and onto the verandah of a priest's house. New Year's decorations were woven through the vines that overhung the recessed entrance. 'Let's stop in here and get used to the dark.'
'When do we start work?' Bryan asked.
'As soon as you've solved our little problem.'
'The target has a loaded disc. He's a merchant and Marta thinks he's been trading with the Manse.'
'What's his name?'
'Machesti. He's big--taller than me and twice as heavy--so we'll have to be careful.' Bryan squatted in the porch, put his elbows on his thighs, his chin in his hands and rocked from side to side. 'Machesti Feoghan,' he murmured, 'ex-ambassador to the Outlanders, one-time fungal engineer, munitions expert and professional wrestler. Lately, a successful merchant. Even Marta wouldn't want to tangle with him--although she may have done so in the past. Got tied up in knots I mean.'
'That's why she doesn't want to get involved now,' said Lequila. 'So she's chosen me...and I've chosen you.'
Bryan stopped rocking. 'But no more rough stuff, please. I'll use up too much energy just keeping up with you, without having to deactivate a brachiosaurus when we arrive. I think my function should be purely information retrieval.'
'We've arranged it so that he will be asleep when we find him. You're just going to look at his disc for a few minutes.'
'Enough asleep. While we were at Beni's Marta gave me the code, you know...and one for yourself, Lequila. So I got Ben to add a time-delay knockout to his drink. Marta's chaperone service will have him safely tucked in bed by now and he'll be snoring like a slug in a sludge chamber. All you have to do is copy some information from his disc--we won't make it a debit operation--he'll lose no talent so nothing will be missing when he wakes.'
'If I can charm his alarm. This is making me nervous.'
Lequila tapped Bryan's forehead. The diamond covering was hard and warm. 'What's that wafer been put in your brain for if you don't do something with it? Use it or lose it, that's what Marta says. Have you got your tool kit with you?'
'Yes, but don't go too fast for me. I don't like running in the dark.'
Lequila pushed Bryan over the railing then followed him.
Heads of sunflowers donked against her scalp as Lequila slid into the balcony garden on the tenth floor of the midtown apartments. She looked all the way down to where she and Bryan had started climbing in the black minutes before the celebrations began. Faint outlines of terraces and balconies were appearing below as the glowlight returned.
Lequila wiped the sweat from her hands and steadied herself against the balcony furniture.
Bryan was already at the door. There was a leathery sound of something being pushed up and down the door jamb, probing for the release mechanism. From below the first pops and burps of fireworks announced midnight--and the New Year.
Then they were inside and gliding, hands first, over the kitchen floor.
After reaching the wall they crept around it until they came to a doorway. Lequila ran her hands round the rubber flashing to check that the door was withdrawn completely into the wall. Bryan's hand met hers and he guided her into the silent bedroom.
Then--a sound like a dog being sick.
'Damn!' Lequila jumped back to the door and thumped on the wall to turn on a light.
Before she could focus on the scene that dazzled before them, Lequila was stumbling toward the bed. 'That idiot barman has given him too much. If he's OD'd, Marta will kill me. Glit! Find him a ventilator.'
More light blazed in the apartment as Bryan ran about, scrabbling through cupboards and drawers and bags. 'Why should he have a ventilator with him?' he hissed. 'Let's just get out of here. He'll sleep it off.'
Lequila slid two fingers into the fat that rolled from the merchant's chin. He was lying on his back with his eyes open, staring at the ceiling. A funfelt rug covered his belly and legs. His chest was still. 'Of course he's got a ventilator. Anyone who's lived in the Outlands needs one for years after--because of the spores. I should know. I've had my years of coughing.' Lequila's fingers probed deeper. 'I can't find his pulse. Hurry.'
'You'll have to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,' said Bryan.
'I'll make you give him mouth-to-mouth if you don't find a ventilator. Look through his bags again. Look under the bed. Find it.'
But Bryan was squatting on the floor, rocking again. 'Have you got a charge of noradene in your belt?' he asked. 'Treat shock with shock. The first law of something or other. I wish this thing in my head would work better when I'm in a hurry.'
Lequila fiddled with her belt and from one of several pouches withdrew a pink phial about the size of a fingernail. She snapped off the protective cone from one end and pressed it to Machesti's chest. Within three seconds he began to breathe and colour seeped into his face.
'Check the dilation of his pupils,' said Bryan who was still rocking on the floor. 'See if they respond to a change in light.'
Lequila bent over Machesti and covered his left eye with her hand to block the light but before she could remove it the body beneath her surged to life, her other arm was grabbed by the wrist and a savage twist threw her to the floor.
The giant slid from the bed, kicking at Bryan while falling toward Lequila who struggled to rise from the floor. She rolled to her left to avoid him but he anticipated the feint and dropped onto her with a howl of rage. A knee pinned her thigh to the floor. His hand went to her throat and began to squeeze.
For an instant Lequila saw with crystal clarity every pore and crease of the pockmarked face above her but then a hole appeared in her vision and the anger and suffocation melted out of her. She seemed to fly upwards through her destroyer, through the apartments above and out into the night. Far below she could see parades and parties lit with the sparkles of New Year fires.
Wisps of light floated about her. One of the lights spoke to her in her mother's voice--her mother who had died when Lequila was four, while her father was away in the Outlands.
The mother-wisp said, 'Go back, Lequila, go back. Your work hasn't been done.'
A light shone in the corner of her vision and Lequila floated toward it as though through a long, compressing tunnel.
But Lequila's mother called again, 'No, no. You must go back.'
Lequila made herself slide back toward the town and apartments below.
Then she was in her painful body gasping and retching for breath.
Bryan was somewhere, pulling at the searing weight that had collapsed on top of her. When she was free Lequila lay still while Bryan thumped at the giant.
Machesti was unconscious again.
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