extract from NOVAHEAD
Parked by the shamefaced and abandoned building of the Terminal Embassy, I nursed a needle, thumb on the plunger. It was Jade, the stuff people took to either raise or lower their intelligence to a median level: communication was almost impossible otherwise. Tonight though, a mistake.
If your heart stops in Beerlight they steal the wheels off it. I cloaked the car and walked down Plenti Street in slate Faraday pants, a decoy shirt and glacier glasses rare as copper wire. Stina Hang was a smashed piazza of shattered asphalt and white dust. The bone idle stood around traditional trashcan fires or sat on the lumpy ground trying to identify their next meal. I spotted a group of three guys who looked to be Mexican. They were sat around a fire, smoking cigars rolled on the thighs of baffled women. I let them know I was coming by giving a brief sketch of my interests and depravities: ‘My hobbies are shaped charge explosions and being meticulously misunderstood. Other than that I’m as useless as a hen on a garbage island.’
‘Friend or foe?’ asked the leader, a dashing bastard in a vintage AV-6 flight jacket.
‘Join my bottle.’
I did as instructed. ‘Here I am, crouched for adventure.’ I found I had to shout above the sound of growing mustaches. ‘Mexican eh?’
I drank whisky out of a dead spyglass.
He continued in a sawmill voice. ‘I first came to Beerlight on a sniper exchange program, to see the Miracle of the Snarling Virgin. What I found dried the slime on my heart. Numb calibrations. Russian doll pinatas.Abominations.’
I nodded. That sounded like the way it might have happened. ‘I agree tooth and nail. I remember when there were banks to be robbed or supported. Let’s pray something’ll crawl out of an ocean trench to bring retribution on us all, eh? I’ll drink to that! I’ll die, and nature will probably be unsatisfied with rotting me once.’
‘As for me, my judge shall find me ready and ripe with crimes.’
‘We’ll be clearing you away with a leaf-blower.’
‘As we are now being frank, whose eyes nest behind them blockers, senor?’
I took inventory before replying. They were all multistrapped but I could only see a few of their flaws. The speaker was dressed in brown, with yellow gloves. He had a Stigmata Hardball in an oxblood boast pocket and a few throwing knives in a waist sheath. The big guy was a bullet-banded jack of clubs— he was stroking a Kingmaker pistol like a pet and had something that might have been a Failsafe bar in a shoulder rig. The third guy appeared to be playing air-dagger. He had hair the appearance and cost of tobacco and an irregular object in the centre of his face. I could only explain it as some sort of nostril array. He favoured a Calico mini sub with a helical magazine. It was unlikely any of them had sidespace holsters.
‘The name’s Atom.’
Telling him this was like interrupting a Kamikaze pilot as he straps on his alice band. He frowned, making a notch between his eyes like a trigger guard. ‘You and your bloodcurdling calm are well known to me. Gumshoe analog. Gun in cookie jar etc.Thought you were dead.’
‘Sure, dead like a fox.’
‘They say you have blank hands and that you killed a President with the one and only Siri gun.’
‘Unavoidable I’m afraid,’ I said, pursuing a course of mildness with utmost resolution.
He thought that over without reaching any apparent conclusion. Then he smiled benignly. ‘As to that, this round man is Jose,’ he said, indicating the bewigged guy with the knife. ‘This rocklike man is Junco, known as El Mozote.’ That was the squarejaw jack with the chest fence and heavy sender. ‘And I am Alfonso.’ He gave a ghastly grin.
‘Well, now I can put names to faces.’
He looked as if he were tasting his own teeth. ‘Ach, you strike a nerve. Look at Jose’s face. There’s not one feature you can name with any certainty. He looks like he began as a man and then Mother Nature lost her nerve. Nose like a chicken bone and downhill from there. And El Mozote—his face, apparently through the workings of sheer chance, has gathered into this pattern while standing fast against the eroding forces of the sea. I make no great claims for mine either. It is just a nose surrounded by other features that swirl around for lack of clear instruction.’
‘Well, if we’re comparing, how about my own face—fixed-wing ears, a snap-brim forehead and forty-calibre tearducts.’ I indicated Jose’s legs. ‘What manner of things are these?’
‘His legs. And now you know everything. Ach, look at their faces. And look at yours. And mine.’
‘How long would that be fun? No, gentlemen, I think it’s time we admitted we’ve sealed our fates by being born behind these distortions.’
We continued the small-talk, air phrases melting before they were received, and touched lightly on politics, agreeing that several well-known figures should be destroyed.
Alfonso ritually offered up the old story of Roni Loveless, the boxer who, ordered to throw a fight, beat not only his opponent but everyone in the arena and its locality in an outward-blooming explosion of violence against enforced mediocrity. Protocol demanded I counter, so I laid out the story of the guy who had quietly killed and disposed of a delegation of government agents visiting his home in Atlanta. A follow-up posse sent to investigate were also quietly disappeared. A subsequent arrest crew were soon missing in action. Word got out and hundreds, then thousands of people flocked to his door seeking a way out. The address was eventually posited as a method of population control. Maybe this last was only legend. My audience sat thoughtfully around the mothering pot.
I was silent for a while, idly painspotting. A moon covered in vaccination scars had ignited Beerlight’s cordite borealis, forming concentric rings of death-smoke. Winged spiders with loose legs wove feebly around in the air. Stina Gate itself was like the gate in King Kong but without the tiki styling. Old code graffiti covered the dented metal behind which stretched a desert consisting not of sand particles but of those sleep-crumbs people roll out of their eyes - the baked flats of the Fadlands. This gap in the world was the endplace of a culture pumping nothingness into a chick-mouthed vacuum. It was artificial, this absence - I knew the difference between it and the tilted fertility exposed when a civilisation is scored back to its bedrock of illusion and doom. There was something honest about the latter’s unrealistic hope. The Fadlands were about cowardice, the denial of anything intense or specific. It had spread like a stain without detail, a blandness its inhabitants had subdivided to keep themselves busy.
Stina Gate was not the portal for contraband notions.
‘What was the man’s name, senor.’
‘The man in Atlanta. Who disappeared the killers.’
‘I don’t remember.’
Like a police statement, why did it seem more unlikely once it was said? Because something couldn’t be defined as a lie until it was stated aloud.
‘Why did he do it?’
‘Well, the term “altruism” springs to mind. You familiar with it? European folk tales are full of this sort of thing, where someone will do something for no visible reason.’
Apparently I wasn’t supposed to know the answer, so when I supplied it I was surprised by the outbreak of evasive fronting-off it provoked. I was still evaluating normalcy here and seeking a baseline in case I decided to comply.
I was worried the Jade had slowed my reflexes, so I popped the pin off a pocket time cap, putting a three-second gain on my existence - I was three seconds into their future. If necessary I would fake a response delay.
‘What’s in the cooking pot?’
‘Know them for what they are: beans. You want?’
‘No, thanks.’ If he’d handed me the ladle it would have gone out of time-phase and given the game away.
‘True. Our short acquaintance ought not to be themed around beans. Never trouble anyone else with what you can hate fully yourself, eh?’
I was starting to think he had a point when a movement at the Gate drew my eye. The Gate slowly opened a crack, allowing through a couple of ragged figures in a puff of dust. A door of those proportions should be approached with a frown of survival. But the kid possessed the sort of face that looked as if it had just that instant run out of ideas. He stood there with no method or disguise, his shapeless kecks flapping up a storm. Next to him an old man with a sharkskin face was wearing a jellycoat flushing from cyan to orange to purple.
I didn’t remark on them, and they were almost out of the plaza when Jose noticed them with a start. Without even standing he pulled a stained-glass grenade from somewhere and pulled the pin, throwing it over-arm at the retreating figures. The air around them scrambled and they blipped out of sight. It was a chronobomb.
Jose explained the situation to the others while betraying no anxiety. They responded likewise, and the three began unhurriedly to check and load their weapons, lumbering to their feet and stretching. They turned their attention to the Gate. The corroded doors were shut. For one who had been so ferociously open about his shortcomings and those of his gang, Alfonso was a confident guy.
Everyone had set to sharpening their spare keys since America went full-scarcity, and the philosopher MerkDuidelijkop had thought it would be alright to create an extensive measurement system of dismay, the Merk Scale, which escalated through 32 million increments. Over the next twenty minutes I watched the three Mexicans climb this scale until they were in a state of savage melancholy. They had sat back down, and were looking angrily at the closed Gate. Their time bomb was mis-firing, maybe. My little delay switch wasn’t strong enough to intersect. Depending on the wiring it could have been a simple expiation misfire. I’d have to ask Maddy later on.
‘This is getting a little creepy now, Alfonso. I like it.’
He seemed not to hear, smoking a shock absorber.
‘You should try nicotine patches.’
He looked at me with indignation. ‘Patches? We don’t need nostinkin’ patches!’
Their gruff malaise continued, with Alfonso throwing me increasingly suspicious looks.
‘Yes, I’ve done everything wrong, as usual,’ I said, playing with the smashed blacktop as if I were on a beach. ‘Yep, that’s the desiccated tarantula in the coconut. Wisdom is something grown, not arranged, buckaroo.’
‘Don’t call me buckaroo, Senor Atom. It would be a simple matter to let a bullet escape in your direction.’
‘Oh I suppose mine is the sort of tap-water truth that’s taken for granted. The pattern of our shifting cowardices has a meaning. I’d like to build you an amazing scale model. And now I begin.’
This unbridled indifference seemed to annoy them. Alfonso gestured at Junco. ‘The Thistle here, his personality basically consists of compressed air. He believes that every talent must unfold itself ultimately in bloody violence. Like this.’ And he snapped his fist at the air, knocking a fly briefly off-course.
At the same moment, Junco thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to fire the Kingmaker at me. I stepped aside. Junco looked blankly confused. Aiming at my past, he had seen the bullet go through me.
‘Whatever you think you know about being Mexican comes from me,’ I announced. I don’t know why I said it—I blame the drugs—but I was still laughing when Jose sapped me over the head. When I hit the ground my face was positioned to complete the sentence ‘Belting the old noggin eh?’ so it hit the dirt chin-first, digging in like trowel. They had a lot of trouble moving me, apparently.
I was dreaming about a grand cathedral of sea cucumbers belching sediment through the windows. I missed my wife.
I awoke leaking into a strange room. I was strapped to an old self-surgery seat. My shirt had already died. The stainless steel throne stood in a garage littered with car batteries, syringes, crumbs of glass and scattered gaskets. There was a pile of tyre-rims like cybernetic haloes.
It sounds more fun than it was. The moment fell into me like painful rain. The Jade and time cap had worn off. I was blood-sick, time-sick. I rolled my head a little - my neck felt granular. It seemed my throat had been doing some wholesale rasping. Three fingers were missing from my left hand, leaving the thumb and index. They weren’t too bright—they’d left me both trigger fingers.
Wearing his hair back to front, Jose stood at the lowered garage door in some sort of apron. And there was Alfonso, sitting sadly on a pile of galvanised steel tubes and looking as if he might cry all over his Astra jacket. They seemed in worse shape than me, as ragged as if they had been keeping up a show of goodwill. Maybe I’d already been annoying them— but I didn’t remember. I supposed I’d been running interference and then wiped that part of my brain before re-emerging. I had no option but to start from the beginning.
‘The sun has risen, senor,’ Alfonso said, perking up a little. ‘The brotherhood have the streets.’
Jose approached me with a cordless hammer drill. ‘Coffin bugs know the geometry of disappearance, Senor Atom. They will explain it to you soon.’
He proceeded to demonstrate what he called ‘the sawmill essentials’ of persuasion with various expert shoves, workshop horrors and other morale-blasting monkeyshines. It was like a sort of electric birthday, and seemed designed to provoke me into a reckless and unguarded outburst. I didn’t think of many remarks, except the unvoiced one that they didn’t go nearly far enough. As it was I seemed to horrify them every time I opened my mouth—even when I asked explicitly after the relevant protocol.
But they were enlivened. The project interested them so much that they frequently stared at me to see if I was starting to like it too. Jose referred to his knife as ‘the key to your throat’. I realised these people would quickly exhaust me with their enthusiasm.
‘Your friend waiting to welcome your guests at the Stina?’
They looked annoyed, which meant the kid and the old man hadn’t re-entered the city yet. Alfonso stood and began punching me almost as if it mattered to him personally. I was surprised—baffled, really— at this level of insecurity. Like most interrogators, they were trying to act cool but something was bugging them. Their position forced them to admit there was something they lacked. Ironically this imbalance will tend to have a fella making one wild claim after another to set them at their ease. As they continued sawing out the rungs of my skeleton I was at a loss as to what else I could do to soothe these bastards. My rotten reassurances left them apparently inconsolable. Jose threw part of my explanation back at me - it sounded strange cut out that way, without top or tail, so I added some new words at the front and back, and he punched me in the nose. Then with a brittle quiver of childlike petulance he started smacking my head about like a tetherball.
It wasn’t really a matter of throwing a scare into me but of discouraging me until I indicated that I understood things the same way they did. Though it was hard work and paid nothing, it would have been unworthy of me to regret or criticise any of us.
An interrogation is not just a form of emotional feasting, it’s really a form of divination. Its arcane conditions are supposed to conjure information that none of those taking part actually know. A setup designed to expect deception will tend to generate it, bending information into ‘true’ by forced surmise. Everyone comes out ahead. On this occasion the principle players’ self-delusions - theirs and mine - were soon mixed and intermingled. Their conjecture was exhaustive and my groans were without content. Of course, my knowing nothing resulted in information moving osmotically in the opposite direction. Their central theme was the Heber kid and my connection to him. They talked about him as if the matter were too familiar to merit much detail, but I gathered that he was a military intelligence asset. Meanwhile they were waiting for enlightenment while obviously afraid of what they might discover. We seemed to be at crossed-purposes.
At least they were uncertain, not bored. But finally they did seem bored. The general sentiment seemed to be that they’d wasted enough time already and here they were. They became reproachful and morose. Alfonso’s face looked like a cow’s. This despair of theirs led me to seek some kind of consolation for them. I evinced stubborn dignity, dazzling indifference, mimsy flirtatiousness, hard-earned sagacity and enigmatic radiance, all in an effort to keep them entertained. Jose looked at me in pained wonder, then became indignant. Alfonso seemed overcome with disbelief and pity, adding a rosy grace note to this depressing shambles of an interrogation.
‘Maybe we’re going at this wrong,’ I said. ‘You’re not allowing me much latitude - not enough for truth, anyway. I can’t believe you really want to know, and apparently I’ve nothing more to learn from you. So why don’t we abandon the project as a failure?’
I was feverish, but I think I made a pretty good case for my remaining meat being of less use than the bits they had claimed so far. I would sooner yield to the micro-banditry of ageing than their surgical persuasions. It was a solid argument. Only the terminally suspicious would assume it came with an agenda.
They looked disappointed.
‘D’youthink I’m made of blood?’
‘Come now, you’ve got more than you give yourself credit for,’ said Alfonso.
I succumbed. ‘That’s it. This interrogation sucks. It’s the worst one I’ve ever been in. You guys don’t know what the hell you’re doing. And that’s the one thing you didn’t count on. You’ve cheapened a beautiful evening with the torture theme. I didn’t think you were scared enough to need this much chair.’ I did not keep from them the fact that they appalled me and that their end could be traced within the stained fringe of any horizon.
Jose breathed hard but didn’t say anything. He looked genuinely hurt. This sudden gravity seemed to mature him.
‘What was the man’s name, senor,’ Alfonso asked almost in a whisper, not looking at me and wandering way off the point. ‘The man in Atlanta who disappeared the killers.’
He clutched at his stomach, vaguely puzzled. Then he folded down hinge by hinge, finally slapping his face to the floor.
I recognised the motion immediately— someone had just discharged a Bohr gun through the wall. A Bohr worked via quantum entanglement, using the particles of the loaded bullet to activate those of its entangled partner in the victim. The loaded bullet was ejected after the operation, as re-firing would only re-install the same quantum bullet in the same impact position.
Jose was up and at the metal wall of the garage door, drawing the Calico while at the same time activating what looked like a counterwave belt studded with vortex coils - the Bohr gun wouldn’t harm him. A rectangle of light appeared at his side - an inset door had opened in the riser and Jose was instantly brawling with someone in front of it. The light flickered like a bulb battered and pinged by moths. I slipped the bloody left strap with my thinned left hand, releasing the right strap and attending to the leg fastenings as the small door fell closed and subfire flared in the gloom, smashing a fusebox. There was some ballistic commotion outside, the fusillade shifting gears back and forth in the signature syntax of the brotherhood. Apparently they were falling over themselves to shoot each other, or perhaps one other person who was unarmed. Jose threw his assailant aside and escaped through the small door. The gunfire changed register as the new element joined.
I staggered through tintacks and obtainium—the frayed view between my eyelashes revealed a woman with mustard-yellow hair, eyes the dead green of visa paper and a mouth that could tear out the sacred heart of Jesus. I confirmed the presence of a nose only much later. She was toting a Bohr 5.56mm rifle and slung under her purple leather coat was a hardshell shotgun, at a minimum. She’d probably weigh no more than 80 pounds drenched in blood. ‘Lux Murphy - FBI.’
‘Good—I need drugs.’
The garage door was lifting like a curtain before a stage.
© Steve Aylett
This electronic excerpt from Novahead appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. Novahead is published by Scar Garden, 2011. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization
Steve Aylett is the author of Novahead (from which this extract is taken), Slaughtermatic, LINT, Fain the Sorcerer, Atom, The Crime Studio, Bigot Hall, Rebel at the End of Time, Toxicology, The Inflatable Volunteer, Shamanspace, And Your Point Is?, The Complete Accomplice, and Smithereens. He was a finalist for the 1998 Philip K Dick Award (for Slaughtermatic) and recently won the Prix Jack Trevor Story (or Jack Trevor Story Memorial Cup).
Visit his website: www.steveaylett.com/
Note: Top image is a mash up from comic stories 'Scarlet' and 'War Heroes' - with credit to various artists, including Tony Harris