Mystery Science Fiction Noir Future Noir

Nothing is Normal

By James Van Pelt
Feb 28, 2019 · 5,737 words · 21 minutes

Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, South Korea.

Photo by Brian Cheng via Unsplash.

From the author: The Eisenhower tunnel cuts beneath the Continental Divide in Colorado, giving I-70 an easier route through the mountains. In the future, when cars are gone, it will be a long, climate-controlled city for low income workers in a world where emotions can be bought or sold, and where even a drug dealer searches for meaning.

      Catdeath snorted two GrieF poppers before deciding on a zebra motif for skinart.  A lace band covered her nips without detracting from the herd thundering across her chest and belly,  up her neck, across her face and over her shaved head.  Still life.  After this season, maybe, she could afford animation, and the animals would wander on her, seeking water holes, raising dust, making four-legged love on a dry, Kenya plain.  She locked her sleepcot back into place, then checked her look in the mirrored wall.  See-through lace shorts.  Black tennies.  Jungle print bag with a quarter mil of emotiphin poppers individually packaged for quick use.  Two large tears tracked down her cheek, over a zebra's back.  Good stuff, GrieF.  She could really feel it:  her stomach ached; her face dragged on the bones with frowning.

     She slapped a security jangler on the crib on her way out.  Better than a lock, it'd zap an intruder and buzz Scrote two doors down.  He'd be out with a tazer before any pop head could bust through and go for the stash.  She fronted him an emotiphin a week for the service; used to be he'd go for AmbitioN, but lately he'd been hitting her hard for RegreT.  "RegreT lasts longer.  It's deeper.  Is this the real stuff?" he said.  "Best I got," she said.  At least he didn't want anything sexual for the service.  Not that it would be that bad.  He was twenty years older with a skin condition, and a botched retinal replacement that left one eye canted away from the other, but he'd always been kind.  There was a lot to be said for pudgy too.  "Quit selling," he told her once, even though it would cut off his supply.  "Cops don't waste users.  Just dealers."

     Homeocyte waited for her at the slideway rail.  He had to speak up over its perpetual rumble and the talk of commuters sliding past.  "J-note's dead.  Tunnel cops found him this morning on the east portal station.  Said he'd cooled for an hour.  He'd been there all that time.  Must have been a thousand people stepped over him.  Jesus."  He staccotoed his fingernails on the rail.  Twitchy.  Buzzing on something.  Maybe AnxiouS or just uppers.  Moonscape skinart spread across his chest.  Stubble fuzzed the image.  He needed to shave more often.  "No load on him.  They got him on the way home.  Figure he couldn't have been carrying more than two or three doses anyway."

     The news didn't effect her more than what she was already experiencing.  If she didn't already feel so bad, she would have laughed.  The poppers made her feel worse than J-note's death would have if she were straight.  "North tunnel guys?"

     "Kids, I figure.  Didn't like his skinart, maybe.  The burning cross thing again.  They slashed it pretty bad."

     "You cover his clientele.  I'm going down to Georgetown."  Catdeath choked back a sob.  The GrieF topped out, and everything struck her as stuningly melancholy.  Even the graffiti on the walls cried with meaning.  Everything touched her.

     Homeocyte whistled.  "Out of your territory.  You'll be staining some slideway yourself."  He looked at her shrewdly.  "You're emoti-tripping now, aren't you?  How many are you popping a day?"

     Catdeath wiped her eyes.  "Mind your own business.  It's a delivery.  Take care of subscribers here, and I'll watch after myself."

     She stepped forward onto the slideway between a matronly type wearing a house duster's smock, and a scrawny bowlhead.  Catdeath couldn't see his face; the bowl covered all but his mouth, but she could hear his music thrumming, and a light flickering in the goggles said he was deep into some v-scape that probably looked a hell of a lot better than this one. 

     "Hi, beautiful," he said dreamily.

     "Sure," she said.  In his virtually enhanced world, she could be Aphrodite, for all he knew.  He probably thought the middle-aged woman in front of her a goddess too.

     A half mile of residence cribs scrolled at a little better than walking speed on her left.  Battered doors, some patched a dozen times over.  Burn marks.  Steel bars and padlocks.  Everyone trying to protect their little bit.  She rode the tail end of the GrieF high and mourned not only her fate, but everyone's fate she passed.  Over 11,000 workers lived in Shotgun City, the low rent Eisenhower Tunnel projects, converted from auto traffic to housing thirty years earlier.  She embraced their lives' sadness.  Those that had jobs worked in the I-70 urban corridor from Idaho Springs to Copper Mountain.  Food service, household domestics, manual laborers, data manipulators: a river of them moved in and out of the twinned 1.7 mile long tunnels twenty-four hours a day.  Flexsteel flooring, thin partitions and an abandonment of anything aesthetically pleasing left over a half-million square feet of cheap residential space.  Two twenty-six feet wide, very long cities, connected in numerous ways, side by side, boring through a mountain.  A worker's ghetto.  Catdeath shifted her bag strap to the other shoulder.  The GrieF was wearing off already.  Being her own, best customer meant she'd built a tolerance, and the lovely despair slipped away, leaving nothing.

     A flashing yellow light on the ceiling, and a bunching up of people on the slideway, told her a cop checkpoint had been set up ahead.  They'd be doing ordinary stuff: I.D. confirmation, work permit verification, hidden weapon scan, but she couldn't risk they'd look in her bag.  She stepped off the slideway and into a paratobacco kiosk.

     "Gotta use your back door," she said, while lifting a panel and crawling under a pipe paraphernalia display.  The bored looking clerk whose skinart slowly revolved red and white stripes, like an old fashioned barber's pole, just nodded.

     Catdeath wormed her way into the service passage, the shoulder width space between the tunnel lining's original tile, and the back of the kiosks and workers' cribs.  Wires, cables and pipes competed for space overhead, and she watched her step so as not to bang her head or trip over building substructure as she went around the checkpoint.  Condensation ran off the tile, and the air smelled of damp fiberboard and mildew.  Shadowy people fled her approach--the lowest of the low, living behind the thin walls.

     Through gaps in the paneling, she glimpsed a sushi shop, a home defense weaponry boutique, a skinart emporium, where a young man lay naked on a bench while the tech applied the micro-electric sensitive dyes and the nanochips that controlled the display.  "You've got flowers?  I like petunias." said the client.

     Ten minutes later, she walked behind darkened residences.  Most workers were at their jobs, so when she figured she'd gone far enough, she kicked open a weakly latched panel and crawled into a lightless crib.  She flashed a penlight around the room the same size as hers, six feet by eight feet.  Walls covered with Arabic posters.  Two little girls, no more than five or six sat up on the cot, their dark eyes fearful.  Probably illigits, or they'd be in day care instead of sitting in the dark.  She figured they were lucky.  Catdeath put her finger to her lips.  "Just passing through."

     Outside, beyond the cop stop, she caught the slideway again.  The slideway carried her through the long curve to the east portal where she blinked against the open sky's brightness and mid-day sunlight. On the mountain valley's sides, condos, offices, shops and step-malls covered the slopes.  Ghostly tendrils of GrieF eddied within her, and she tried to raise the specter of the mountain landscape beneath the cement, but the feeling wouldn't last.

     She moved to a tram turnstile, keeping eye for north tunnel muscle.  They ran the business at both portals.  It wasn't until she passed her wrist code over the scanner to pay for the tram that she spotted Corvette and Insulin.  Corvette was a little guy who had a nasty thing about pain: he bought it, sold it, took it, gave it.  Nobody knew what Insulin liked, but he hated south tunnel action, so Catdeath watched from within the tram as they charged toward her, knocking down a couple of civies at the turnstile, but missing the closing doors by an arm's length.  Frustration warped their faces as the car lifted from the platform on its monorail and sped down the valley.  She felt around within her bag.  The poppers' hard-shelled wrapping didn't tell her their contents.  Some SatisfactioN would be good now, or even a whiff of GiddY.  With effort, she took her hand from the bag.  Temptation pushed her to choose one randomly.  Two would be even better.  RegreT tinged with TerroR.  Maybe a little GuilT and PridE mixed together.  Too many people around her.  Impossible to tell narcs from civies.

     An unbroken line of brick, steel, glass and concrete passed under the tram.  City transport.  Antiseptic smelling.  Cracked seats.  Life-dead workers going or coming.  Some carried meals in their laps.  No children.  All in day care.  No seniors.  An employees' car.  Catdeath kept her cheek pressed against the plexiglass, letting the city roll by.  The mountain air chilled her.  It wasn't tunnel warm or tunnel humid.

     Georgetown platform came up too soon.  Catdeath thought about finding a rest room where she could pop.  Anything to give her an edge, an emotion to swing from, but she needed to be sharp.  Big deals don't come along that often, she thought.  Have to stay focused. 

     She glanced around when she stepped off the platform, but the chance a north tunnel dealer would be this far east was remote.  A covered escalator took her into white collar land.  Swept streets.  No graffiti on walls.  Polished glass doorways.  Machine conditioned air like rain-washed pine trees.  The doorman at Kingston Heights wore tuxedo skinart.  Real collar.  Real cuffs.  Fancy.  Expensive work.  Impossible to tell he was otherwise naked until she got up close.  "Nice suit," she said.

     "Nice zebras."

     After checking her bonafides, he let her up.  The private elevator's walls were mirrors, but the glass floor was utterly clear.  The doorman was right; her zebras looked good.  The ground dropped away.  Catdeath shut her eyes and hummed along with the music, a slow-paced popular commercial instrumental from the week before. 

     "Do you have it all?" said the buyer.  Shimmery gold pants.  Black silk codpiece.  No shirt.  No skinart.  Health club musculature beneath a pre-carcinogenic looking tan.  Young body.  Old face.  He sat on an all white couch.  Silver linoleum floor.  No scuffs.  Catdeath checked the apartment.  Glass walls, like the elevator floor.  Nothing concealed.  Bed.  Bathroom.  Balcony beyond nearly invisible sliding doors.  No sign of a kitchen.  She didn't like the set up.  A remnant of last night's ParanoiD?  She wasn't sure.

     "Just like you ordered.  An emotiphin smorgasbord."  She dumped the bag on the coffee table (real coffee--he offered--she drank).

     "Even the tough to get stuff?"

     Catdeath held up four caplets  "Two LusT, two RagE.  Ten months and an neural adjustment just for possession.  Make sure you take them in context.  Rape on the one and assault on the other.  Right situation, right friends, proper supervision, they're fun, but you have to set them up.  I wouldn't mix them."

     The buyer balanced them on his hand.  "Wouldn't you, dear?  That's not what I heard.  Why don't we both try them and see what happens?"

     Catdeath smiled.  She knew it disarmed her face.  Made her look vulnerable.  "I'll pop now and then, but the two I won't mix are business and emotions.  Now, what about payment?"

     The buyer waved his wrist over a reader built into the table.  Account info she couldn't decipher from her angle popped into the air.  He manipulated the figures.  She gave him her code, and the credits transferred to a roaming, misnumbered account Scrote had set up for her.  Number changed constantly.  Money stayed with it.  Technically invisible to the bank.  Only she could access it, and no one could trace it to her, theoretically.  "Services rendered," the buyer said.  "It'll look like a year of high class domestic work to the Feds.  Salary's good when you earn it on your back."

     "I wouldn't know."  She queried the terminal to confirm the transaction.

     "Too bad.  We could boost your payday."  He grinned, and a network of fine, white scars radiated from the corners of his eyes and mouth.  He could be a even older than he looked.

     She gathered her bag and glanced over her shoulder at the elevator door.

     "Why the zebras, dear?"  He scooped the caplets into a drawer she hadn't noticed before in the couch's base, and when he closed it, there was no evidence it was there.  "They're extinct.  Last week, tigers.  The week before, wolves.  All extinct animals.  Why?"

     "You've been watching me."

     "Smart business to know who you're dealing with.  A friend talked with one of your associates.  Tried your product.  I needed to be sure you weren't working for parties who'd use this little purchase to my disadvantage."

     "Politics, it’s a bitch.  If I get caught selling, ten years and some invasive psychotherapy.  Except for those specialty poppers, you get caught using, and it’s a fine," she said.  She reached into her bag.  The bottom supports were snap-away plastic.  Fast acting depressants melded into both sharpened ends.

     "Appearance, my dear, is sacrosanct to some people."

     The elevator door clicked behind her.  She didn't wait to see who came in.  Left the bag.  Cleared the couch on a sprint.  Scratched the buyer with the depressant in passing, and knocked a balcony door off its runners going through.  As she swung from the railing, she looked back.  Tuxedo, hefting a pistol, leaned over the prostrate buyer.  Using drugs wasn't that big a deal legally, but hand guns certainly were.  She dropped onto the balcony below, slipped into an empty apartment, ran down a hallway, found a maintenance exit locked to the outside and hopped a public escalator down the mountain.  White collar holo ads called from the ceiling: clothing, personal services, pharmaceuticals.  No one looked up.  Most people wore more than she did.  No one shaved their heads.  Her appearance marked her.  Tunnel trash.  She knew it.  Didn't care.

     At the second junction, she transferred to a slideway going east.  If the buyer sent a crowd to find her, they'd head west for the tunnel first.  Watch the trams.  Post spies at the portals.  After ten minutes on the slideway, she stepped off.  Walked down a broad, stone promenade into an open market, stopped in a skinart shop, bought a popular floral print.  The tech reprogrammed her nanochips, changing the dyes' alignment.  Zebras faded and a bright cascade of roses bloomed on her arms.  Leaves encircled her neck.  A spray of petals marked her cheeks. 

     Next door Catdeath found a floppy hat ("Guaranteed UV compliant!") and jacket, paid for them, then hustled back onto the slideway.  Her account was supposed to be untraceable, as long as no one knew it existed.  They might find it if they looked hard enough, and the buyer had the her wrist code from a half hour earlier.

     Four transfers later, switches of direction each time, she went to ground in a envirobar near Idaho Springs. 

     "Desert decor today," toned an automatic greeter as she walked in the door.  From where she stood, the room opened like the Mojave desert at sunset.  Rock-like tables sprinkled across the sand.  Long shadows.  Vermillion horizon above the sun's edge.  The place was nearly empty.  She took a table as far away from the door as possible, next to one wall.  Up close, the illusion fell apart.  The desert display on the near wall blurred out, although across the room the virtual Sierra Nevadas rose up fifty miles away. 

     Head aching, she ordered an iced camomile tea, rolled the cool glass against her forehead, tried to relax.  A whiff of ContentmenT would be nice now, but she didn't know any vendors this far east.  Blind buying would put her onto a narc for sure.

     Dabney Fortineu, A.K.A. Catdeath.  Age twenty-three.  Mom: licensed domestic.  Father: unknown.  Mom transferred Dabney from one corporate day care to another her first fifteen months before Mom died in an industrial brothel.  Cause unknown.  Suspected suicide.  Social Assistance took ward.  Dabney diagnosed with typical reactive attachment disorder at thirty-six months, an endemic fate for poorer children.  Corporate provided therapy until seventy-two months.  Case worker listed his conclusions upon cessation of treatment, "Muted emotional responses.  Near incapacity to form personal relationships.  Can't be touched.  Expected behavior from a child of her background.  Prognosis: normal."  In the margin under the dates and signatures, someone had scrawled, "She will never love."

     When she was four, she disappeared from her foster crib for two hours.  They found her on the slideway, tugging on strangers’ sleeves.  “Have you seen my daddy?” she asked them.

     After two hours, Catdeath moved.  Paid for the tea, then hit the slideway running.  The buyer might not be tracking her purchases, but she couldn't take the risk.  She clenched her hands to keep them from shaking as she transferred from one direction to another.  Her mouth's insides stuck to her teeth.  She ran her tongue over them, but it didn't help.  Signs of emotiphin withdrawal.  The headache would get worse, she knew.  She'd become weak.  Walking would be hard.  All she would want to do would be to sleep.  If she didn't pop, the symptoms would linger for a week or two.  The physical discomfort would taper, but inside she felt nothing--interstellar space nothing.  That wouldn't fade.  Nothing was normal for Catdeath. 

     The buyer said he'd "had a talk with one of your associates.  Tried your product."  No way he could do that.  Catdeath sold emotiphins by subscription.  Her people ran regular routes, delivered to old customers.  Lots of advantage to the system.  She never ordered too much material.  Only she knew her supplier.  Low risk to her runners.  She opened up all the new territory and made special deliveries.  Tougher for her to be cheated.  Tougher for the big hitters to find her operation.  So J-note probably hadn't been killed for his skinart.  More likely he'd run into Tuxedo, or some other of the buyer's toadies.  Wouldn't pony up the goods and ended up dead at the slideway's end.

     So why did it go down the way it did?  She didn't believe his explanation that he wanted to check her first.  There were many ways to do it that didn't involve taking out a low level guy like J-note.  In fact, why deal with her at all?  Georgetown had its own suppliers.  She should have smelled how bad it was, but the credits tempted too much.  A month's worth of product moved in one sale.  Who could pass that up?  Her head hurt.  Thinking called up tiny buzz bombs behind her eyes.  Sleeping sounded good.  She needed to get back home, but to do that, required someone to give her an all clear at the east portal.  The north tunnel guys might still be hanging out, waiting for her, or the buyer's crowd could be there, or the cops.  She'd have to send one of her people to scout the portal.

     Catdeath found a public vidcom booth near a park, a city block of dry looking mountain grass, some natural granite boulders; hands-off wire circled a sickly aspen.  She toned Homeocyte's address.  Waited for the connection.  After forever, a strange face swam into the monitor.  Catdeath took it in: two uniforms in the background.  Distinctive grey.  Homicide.  She clicked off, jogged across the park, hopped the back of a delivery cart and rode it for twenty minutes.  Found another vidcom, toned her supplier and got an "address not found" message.

     She drummed her fingers on the blanked monitor.  Her supplier, an augmented paraplegic, ran a chem-shed operation from a false front news stand in South Tunnel.  He wasn't going anywhere.  He wouldn't go anywhere, so if the address was terminated he probably was too.

     The buy was a set up.  The buyer was the new man in South Tunnel, and she was the freelancer on the way out.  Knowing it didn't help her head.

     At fourteen she looked twenty.  Long legs, no breasts.  Almond eyes, high cheek bones, mahogany skin.  Welfare teacher wouldn't leave her alone.  Pressured her for "private" lessons.  She saw them for what they were.  Went to Social Assistance to complain.  The case worker set up appointments to work with her.  Locked the door behind her one afternoon.  Slipped her something in her water.  She woke up in South Tunnel.  Sore crotch.  Quit school.  Quit Social Assistance.  Met Scrote who gave her a mattress on the crib's floor.  "I don't need your help," she told him.  He said, "I know," then hacked her into the system.  Found her credits to live on by delaying welfare payments to hundreds of recipients for a couple hours each.  Money was hers during the interim, and the traveling shortfall didn't show up on the city's audit program long enough to set off an alarm.  In a month Dabney Fortineu vanished from the records.  Catdeath appeared.  For the weeks she lived in Scrote's crib, she waited for him to lower himself off his sleepcot in the middle of the night, to join her on the floor.  She expected it.  Was resigned to it.  Never happened. 

     Her first skinart: dolphins.  Blue dolphins jumping from a green ocean.  Grinning faces.  Sparkling eyes.  Shiny, white foam splashes. Dolphins died in the minor-ozone breach of '48.  None left for the major in '54.

     Catdeath waited under an arbor at a public access terminal table fifty yards from the vidcom booth.  At the next table, a couple prepubescents cruised through porno vids, one after another; a sexless voice interrupted the moaning every minute with the message, "Extended exposure to prurient material may result in antisocial behavior."  The boys giggled, and not too subtly checked out Catdeath's legs every chance they could.

     A man and woman, skinarted in the same style as Tuxedo, except the man wore a Hawaiian print and the woman wore a French maids outfit, walked briskly to the booth Catdeath had used.  The man removed a military issue genescope from his bag and scanned the vidcom's buttons.  Meanwhile, the woman, hands behind her back examined the passerbyes' faces.  Before she looked in Catdeath's direction, Catdeath ducked beneath her hat's floppy brim and slipped out the arbor's back side.

     So the buyer did have her code, and any place she used it, they would be after her.  They undoubtably knew what clothes she wore and the skinart. 

     On the street again, the sun blazed.  Everyone wore a hat outside, so she was less conspicuous.  The headache escalated into a solid, throbbing pulse.  What she wanted to do most was shut her eyes.  Dodging would do no good now.  They had a map of her purchases, and she realized a half dozen other places required her wrist code where she'd given it without thinking.  Within a half mile or so, they knew her location.  Artificial Intelligence tracking software probably profiled her moves.  The thing to do now was either go to ground and hope they'd miss her in a sweep, or to quit telling them where she was.

     A long walk, bypassing slideways that required wristcode for access, brought her to the east portal express tram.  She sat to the side, watching as each car filled and departed.  No obvious spies here.  The platform emptied each time.  Perhaps they depended on her code to signal her whereabouts, and they'd be waiting for her at the other end.  The billboard beside her changed colors.  Became a different ad.  If she stood directly in front, she'd hear its message too, but being off center muffled the ad's pitch.  She leaned against the slick surface, closed her eyes; envisioned okapi, giraffes, pandas, and they changed into empty jungles, leaves burned black.  Then, sullen, grey waters rising in falling in sterile rhythms beneath a searing sun, and the waves rolled into buffalo wandering below her, a brown mass reaching to the horizon.  A breeze drifted across the plain, stirring up animal smells and wild wheat.  She jerked herself from a doze.  How much time had she lost?  She couldn't tell.  Workers stood on the platform, ready for the tram.

     Catdeath rose.  Stood beside a tall woman wearing a cellophane raincoat, blazing fireworks skinart underneath, expanding into new colors by the second.  An outfit a little extreme for the middle of the afternoon, Catdeath thought.  The platform filled; the tram arrived.  A line formed.  Catdeath stayed close behind the fireworks woman.  When she stepped into the turnstile, Catdeath pushed herself against her, forced her knee into the back of the other woman's knee, and almost knocked them both down.

     "Sorry," said Catdeath, helping her up.

     Fireworks woman's eyes were all pupil.  "My fault entirely," she drawled, letting the last sound trail into silence.

     They were past the tram's people counter.  No alarm.  It saw Catdeath and Fireworks as one.  No one knew she had boarded.  Gentle acceleration pushed her into the bench seat as the tram rose and ascended the mountain.  She moved by rote now.  Inside, she found no motivation.  Couldn't care.  Didn't even want to pop.  What would it matter?  Gummy taste in her mouth.  Head a painful heartbeat.  Her arms and legs so heavy, she could hardly move them.  Catdeath tried to muster a feeling for J-note and Homeocyte, but she found none within her.  Even anger at the buyer would be welcome, but she couldn't picture him through the headache.  Only sleep would help.

     The darkness within frightened more.  No glimmer of feeling.  Every emotiphin trace washed from her system.  Total black hole.  Catdeath bent forward to wrap around the emptiness.  Her heart sucked it all in, released nothing.  An immeasurable void in her chest.  She had the headache's pain.  She had the texture of her legs beneath her arms.  That was all she had.

     The tram hurried to the east portal.  Catdeath had hardly closed her eyes when the car slowed.  People moved to the aisle, ready to depart.  She looked up dully.  Fireworks rested her arm on the back of Catdeath's seat, a sparkler glittered in the skin of her palm.

     After several years hustling different scams, Catdeath got into emotiphins.  Built a customer base.  Settled in.  She spent most her time in her crib, reading.  No social life.  She knew dozens of people who believed she was their friend.  They weren't.  For her, every relationship was a business one.  Occasionally Scrote knocked on her door.  He'd found a new pastry, and he bought an extra one for her.  Sometimes he came in, sat on the sleepcot while she read.  Didn't talk much.  Programmed her reader to give her free access to the biblioweb.  Listened when she told him about muskrats, skunks, raccoon and squirrels, about how they used to be wild everywhere, about how they disappeared.

     Emotiphins were good.  Like vacations to foreign lands.  In between highs, she felt colorless.  Tried not to think about meaning.  Didn't consider consequences.  Just the ever present "now" mattered.  Once, when she was ten, she told a teacher, "I used to be a liar, but that was yesterday."

     An obese woman, canes for both hands, headed for the exit.  Catdeath forced herself up and behind her.  She pulled her brim to cover her eyes and crouched a bit.  Through the windows, she saw Corvette on a guard rail ten feet above the slideway.  No sign of Insulin.  Farther on the platform, Tuxedo sat on a bench, a news reader in his lap he wasn't looking at.  No cops.

     Catdeath used the fat woman for a shield.  Stayed low as she stepped off the tram and waddled toward the slideway.  At the last second, a few feet from Corvette, Catdeath straightened, took two quick steps and had one hand on Corvette's chest to hold him off balance and the other between his legs.

     "Keep your hands clear," she said as he reached for a pocket.  She squeezed, and his eyes went wide.

     "That hurts so fine . . ." he started to say, and this time she twisted her wrist.  His jaw snapped shut as his face paled.

     "Too much of a good thing?"   Her back was to Tuxedo all the way across the platform.  She guessed he probably couldn't see them.  Lots of foot traffic into and out of the trams.

     "I don't have time to mess with you."  She squeezed again for emphasis.  He sucked air between his teeth.  "There's a guy in a tux sitting near the tunnel entrance."

     "Black suit?" said Corvette through white lips.

     "Yeah.  He's part of a Georgetown crew that's planning on moving poppers in the tunnels.  I'm already out.  They've scrubbed my people, and my best chance of getting through this alive is to let you know about it."

     "Why should I help you?" said Corvette.  His hands moved slowly toward his sides.  Catdeath pushed him back a bit so he was even more off balance.  If she let go, he'd fall off the rail.  Just ten feet, but nothing to cushion the blow.

     "I don't need your help.  He doesn't have your best interests at heart.  If  they're taking South Tunnel now, they'll be in North Tunnel soon.  I know them; I can help you, but I've got to get in the tunnel first.  You distract him, and I'll remember it later.  Don't take too long to decide.  I've got a headache."  She dug her fingernails in a little.

     Corvette whispered, "Ouch.  All right.  You say they killed tunnel people?"

     Catdeath nodded, loosened her grip, pulled him upright.

     "I think you drew blood," Corvette said.

     "Maybe you can get Insulin to kiss it for you later.  Get me a few seconds."

     Corvette limped into the crowd.  Catdeath kept her back to Tuxedo, but turned enough so she could see.  Corvette set himself up behind Tuxedo, then nodded her way.  She stepped onto the slideway and began moving toward the two.  Tuxedo had an unobstructed view of everyone on the slideway.  It would be impossible to get by him undetected.  As she glided forward, it occurred to her Corvette might do nothing.  He could let Tuxedo kill her and still take her warning into North Tunnel.  It's what she would do.  She watched from under the hat's brim, but she struggled to care one way or the other.

     An autocart carrying steaming teas and neuvocoffees rolled by Corvette.  He waved his wrist code over the scanner, took a large insulated cups and removed its lid.  As Catdeath approached, he raised it to her in a salute, stepped forward and poured the entire cup over Tuxedo's shoulder and onto his naked chest.

     Lots of screaming.  People rushing about.  The last thing she saw as she disappeared into the tunnel was Corvette working his way against the flow of onlookers gathering around Tuxedo.

     Ten minutes later, she got off the slideway in front of her crib.  Tunnel noises seemed too loud: the slideway's metallic rattle, voices, music, doors closing, bells--too loud, too obtrusive.  Catdeath rotated her head on her neck, eyes closed, but even through her eyelids, the lights glared, and overwhelming it all, her head's incessant pounding escalated.  It nauseated her.  Through a painful squint, she walked to her own crib, reached out to disarm the jangler, then stopped.  It wasn't her jangler.  Close, but not hers.  If she touched it, it would alert whoever put it there.  For a moment, she kept her hand poised above the device, and she almost punched in the code anyway.  Finally, she sat, knees up, face pressed against her legs.

     Everything was gone.  She fell over on her side, knees still curled, eyes open, not looking at her door anymore.  No emotion, but nothing else either.  She tried to think how she ended up this way, but memories wouldn't connect.  Her thoughts kept returning to seals, penguins, robins, garter snakes, all gone, all gone.  She'd worn them on her skin.  Didn't know why, but she liked extinct animal designs.  She imagined wearing skinart that rotated images, badgers would rise up, turn away, become tortoises who'd waddle into antelope springing across the prairie.  Delicate antelope, impossibly leaping ahead of predators.  Beige skin.  White rumps.  Brilliantly hurtling sagebrush and fences and muddy little creeks.  Then, the final transformation.  The leaping antelopes would turn into images of Catdeath.

     She'd wear herself on her skin.

     A herd of Catdeath would wander on her, seeking bars, raising ruckus, making love on a rumbling South Tunnel slideway.  She could keep herself alive as she did zebra and tigers, animated on her skin canvas.

     But she'd have to get up.  Couldn't do it on her own.  Had to find help.

     She groaned, rolled to her hands and knees, her head like a terrible weight. Staggered to Scrote's door and knocked.  Fell into his arms.

     Later, she didn't know when, she awoke.  For moments she blinked slowly, trying to place herself.  Scrote's crib.  In his sleepcot.  A pale blue monitor glowing, the only light.  Her head rested on his leg; his hand cupped her shaved head.  He slept sitting up, jammed into the corner of the room, snoring softly, like bubbles rising from the sea bed where dolphins lived.

     Catdeath closed her eyes.  The top of her head was warm.  His fingers traced a path of heat.  She didn't feel like brushing it away.  For the first time ever, a human touch was good.  And deep within, the emotional nothingness twitched.  A small twitch, a weak, weak echo of a good emotiphin, but she felt it anyway, stirring in the darkness.

     A real feeling, of hope.

This story originally appeared in On Spec.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."