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26 - The Wig

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“YOU KNOW, REZ said, hanging upside down in front of Marly, “it’s strictly no biz of mine, but is somebody maybe expecting you when we get there? I mean, I’m taking you there, for sure, and if you can’t get in, I’ll take you back to JAL Term But if nobody wants to let you in, I don’t know how long I want to hang around. That thing’s scrap, and we get some funny people hanging out in the hulks, out here.” Rez - or Therése, Marly gathered, from the laminated pilot’s license clipped to the Sweet Jane’s console - had removed her canvas work vest for the trip.

Marly, numb with the rainbow of derms Rez had pasted along her wrist to counteract the convulsive nausea of space adaptation syndrome, stared at the rose tattoo. It had been executed in a Japanese style hundreds of years old, and Marly woozily decided that she liked it. That, in fact, she liked Rez, who was at once hard and girlish and concerned for her strange passenger. Rez had admired her leather jacket and purse, before bundling them into a kind of narrow nylon net hammock already stuffed with cassettes, print books, and unwashed clothing.

“I don’t know,” Marly managed, “I’ll just have to try to getting’…”

“You know what that thing is, sister?” Rez was adjusting the g-web around Marly’s shoulders and armpits.

“What thing?” Marly blinked.

“Where we’re going. It’s part of the old Tessier-Ashpool cores. Used to be the mainframes for their corporate memory.

“I’ve heard of them,” Marly said, closing her eyes. “Andrea told me

“Sure, everybody’s heard of ‘em - they used to own all of Freeside. Built it, even. Then they went tits up and sold out. Had their family place cut off the spindle and towed to another orbit, but they had the cores wiped before they did that, and torched ‘em off and sold ‘em to a scrapper. The scrapper’s never done anything with ‘em I never heard anybody was squatting there, but out here you live where you can… I guess that’s true for anybody. Like they say that Lady Jane, old Ashpool’s daughter, she’s still living in their old place, stone crazy… She gave the g-web a last professional tug. “Okay. You just relax. I’m gonna burn Jane hard for twenty minutes, but it’ll get us there fast, which I figure is what you’re paying for…”

And Marly slid back into a landscape built all of boxes, vast wooden Cornell constructions where the solid residues of love and memory were displayed behind rain-streaked sheets of dusty glass, and the figure of the mysterious boxmaker fled before her down avenues paved with mosaics of human teeth, Marly’s Paris boots clicking blindly over symbols outlined in dull gold crowns. The boxmaker was male and wore Alain’s green jacket, and feared her above all things. “I’m sorry,” she cried, running after him, “I’m sorry…”

“Yeah. Therése Lorenz, the Sweet Jane. You want the numbers? What? Yeah, sure we’re pirates. I’m Captain fucking Hook already… Look, Jack, lemme give you the numbers, you can check it out… I said already. I gotta passenger. Request permission, et Goddamn cetera… Marly Something, speaks French in her sleep…”

Marly’s lids flickered, opened Rez was webbed in front of her, each small muscle of her back precisely defined. “Hey,” Rez said, twisting around in the web, “I’m sorry. I raised ‘em for you, but they sound pretty flaky. You religious?”

“No,” Marly said, baffled.

Rez made a face. “Well, I hope you can make sense out of this shit, then.” She shrugged out of the web and executed a tight backward somersault that brought her within centimeters of Marly’s face An optic ribbon trailed from her hand to the console, and for the first time Marly saw the delicate sky-blue socket set flush with the skin of the girl’s wrist. She popped a speaker-bead into Marly’s right ear and adjusted the trans-parent microphone tube that curved down from it.

“You have no right to disturb us here,” a man’s voice said. “Our work is the work of God, and we alone have seen His true face!”

“Hello? Hello, can you hear me? My name is Marly Krushkhova and I have urgent business with you. Or with someone at these coordinates. My business concerns a series of boxes, collages. The maker of these boxes may be in terrible danger! I must see him!”

“Danger?” The man coughed. “God alone decides man’s fate! We are entirely without fear. But neither are we fools…”

“Please, listen to me. I was hired by Josef Virek to locate the maker of the boxes. But now I have come to warn you. Virek knows you are here, and his agents will follow me…”

Rez was staring at her hard.

“You must let me in! I can tell you more…”

“Virek?” There was a long, static-filled pause. “Josef Virek?”

“Yes.” Marly said. “That one You’ve seen his picture all your life, the one with the king of England… Please, please…”

“Give me your pilot,” the voice said, and the bluster and hysteria were gone, replaced with something Marly liked even less.

“It’s a spare,” Rez said, snapping the mirrored helmet from the red suit. “I can afford it, you paid me enough.

“No,” Marly protested, “really, you needn’t…” She shook her head, Rez was undoing the fastenings at the spacesuit’s waist.

“You don’t go into a thing like that without a suit,” she said. “You don’t know what they got for atmosphere. You don’t even know they got atmosphere! And any kinda bacteria, spores… What’s the matter?” Lowering the silver helmet.

“I’m claustrophobic!”

“Oh… Rez stared at her. “I heard of that… It means you’re scared to be inside things?” She looked genuinely curious.

“Small things, yes.”

“Like Sweet Jane?”

“Yes, but… She glanced at the cramped cabin, fighting her panic. “I can stand this, but not the helmet.” She shuddered.

“Well,” Rez said, “tell you what. We get you into the suit, but we leave the helmet off. I’ll teach you how to fasten it. Deal? Otherwise, you don’t leave my ship…” Her mouth was straight and firm.

“Yes,” Marly said, “yes…”

“Here’s the drill,” Rez said. “We’re lock to lock. This hatch opens, you get in, I close it. Then I open the other side. Then you’re in whatever passes for atmosphere, in there. You sure you don’t want the helmet on?”

“No,” Marly said, looking down at the helmet she grasped in the suit’s red gauntlets. at her pale reflection in the mirrored faceplate Rez made a little clicking sound with her tongue. “Your life. If you want to get back, have them put a message through JAL Term for the Sweet Jane.”

Marly kicked off clumsily and spun forward into the lock, no larger than an upright coffin. The red suit’s breastplate clicked hard against the outer hatch, and she heard the inner one hiss shut behind her. A light came on, beside her head, and she thought of the lights in refrigerators. “Good-bye, Therése.”

Nothing happened. She was alone with the beating of her heart.

Then the Sweet Jane’s outer hatch slid open. A slight pressure differential was enough to tumble her out into a darkness that smelled old and sadly human, a smell like a long-abandoned locker room. There was a thickness, an un-clean dampness to the air, and, still tumbling, she saw Sweet Jane’s hatch slide shut behind her. A beam of light stabbed past her, wavered, swung, and found her spinning.

“Lights,” someone bawled hoarsely. “Lights for our guest! Jones!” It was the voice she’d heard through the ear-bead. It rang strangely, in the iron vastness of this place, this hollow she fell through, and then there was a grating sound and a distant ring of harsh blue flared up, showing her the far curve of a wall or hull of steel and welded lunar rock. The surface was lined and pitted with precisely carved channels and depressions, where equipment of some kind had once been fitted. Scabrous clumps of brown expansion foam still adhered in some of the deeper cuts, and others were lost in dead black shadow…”You’d better get a line on her, Jones, before she cracks her head…”

Something struck the shoulder of her suit with a damp smack, and she turned her head to see a pink gob of bright plastic trailing a fine pink line, which jerked taut as she watched, flipping her around. The derelict cathedral space filled with the laboring whine of an engine, and, quite slowly, they reeled her in.

“It took you long enough,” the voice said. “I wondered who would be first, and now it’s Virek… Mammon… And then they had her, spinning her around. She almost lost the helmet: it was drifting away, but one of them batted it back into her hands. Her purse, with her boots and jacket folded inside, executed its own arc, on its shoulder strap, and bumped the side of her head.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Ludgate!” the old man roared. “Wigan Ludgate, as you well know. Who else did he send you to deceive?” His seamed, blotched face was clean shaven, but his gray, un-trimmed hair floated free, seaweed on a tide of stale air.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not here to deceive you. I no longer work for Virek… I came here because… I mean, I’m not at all sure why I came here, to begin with, but on my way I learned that the artist who makes the boxes is in danger. Because there’s something else, something Virek thinks he has, something Virek thinks will free him from his cancers… Her words ran down to silence, in the face of the almost palpable craziness that radiated from Wigan Ludgate, and she saw that he wore the cracked plastic carapace of an old work suit, with cheap metal crucifixes epoxied like a necklace around the tarnished steel helmet ring. His face was very close. She could smell his decaying teeth.

“The boxes!” Little balls of spittle curled off his lips, obeying the elegant laws of Newtonian physics. “You whore! They’re of the hand of God!”

“Easy there, Lud,” said a second voice, “you’re scarin’ the lady. Easy, lady, ‘cause old Lud, he hasn’t got too many visitors. Gets him quite worked up, y’see, but he’s basically a harmless old bugger… She turned her head and met the relaxed gaze of a pair of wide blue eyes in a very young face. “I’m Jones,” he said, “I live here, too…

Wigan Ludgate threw back his head and howled, and the sound rang wild against the walls of steel and stone.

“Mostly, y’see,” Jones was saying as Marly pulled her way behind him along a knotted line stretched taut down a corridor that seemed to have no end, “he’s pretty quiet.

Listens to his voices, y’know. Talks to himself, or maybe to the voices, I dunno, and then a spell comes on him and he’s like this…” When he stopped speaking, she could still hear faint echoes of Ludgate’s howls. “You may think it’s cruel, me leavin’ him this way, but it’s best, really. He’ll tire of it soon. Gets hungry. Then he comes to find me. Wants his tuck, y’see.”

“Are you Australian?” she asked.

“New Melbourne,” he said. “Or was, before I got up the well.”

“Do you mind my asking why you’re here? I mean, here in this, this… What is it?”

The boy laughed. “Mostly, I call it the Place. Lud, he calls it a lot of things, but mostly the Kingdom. Figures he’s found God, he does. Suppose he has, if you want to look at it that way. Near as I make it, he was some kind of console crook before he got up the well. Don’t know how he came to be here, exactly, other than that it suits the poor bastard. Me, I came here runnin’, understand? Trouble somewhere, not to be too specific, and my arse for out of there. Turn up here - that’s a long tale of its own - and here’s bloody Ludgate near to starvin’. He’d had him a sort of business, sellin’ things he’d scavenge, and those boxes you’re after, but he’d gotten a bit far gone for that. His buyers would come, oh, say, three times a year, but he’d send ‘em away. Well. I thought, the hidin’ here’s as good as any, so I took to helpin’ him. That’s it, I guess.”

“Can you take me to the artist? Is he here? It’s extremely urgent.”

“I’ll take you, no fear. But this place, it was never really built for people, not to get around in, I mean, so it’s a bit of a journey… It isn’t likely to be going anywhere, though. Can’t guarantee it’ll make a box for you. Do you really work for Virek? Fabulous rich old shit on the telly? Kraut, isn’t he?”

“I did,” she said, “for a number of days. As for nationality, I would guess Herr Virek is the sole citizen of a nation consisting of Herr Virek…”

“See what you mean,” Jones said, cheerily. “It’s all the same, with these rich old fucks, I suppose, though it’s more fun than watching a bloody zaibatsu… You won’t see a zaibatsu come to a messy end, will you? Take old Ashpool - countryman of mine, he was - who built all this; they say his own daughter slit his throat, and now she’s bad as old Lud, holed up in the family castle somewhere. The Place being a former part of all that, y’see.”

“Rez… I mean, my pilot, said something like that. And a friend of mine, in Paris, mentioned the Tessier-Ashpools recently… The clan is in eclipse?”

“Eclipse? Lord! Down the bloody tube’s more like it. Think about it: We’re crawlin’, you an’ me, through what used to be their corporate data cores. Some contractor in Pakistan bought the thing; hull’s fine, and there’s a fair bit of gold in the circuitry, but not as cheap to recover as some might like… It’ s been hangin’ up here ever since, with only old Lud to keep it company, and it him. Till I come along, that is. Guess one day the crews’ll come up from Pakistan and get cuttin’… Funny, though, how much of it still seems to work, at least part of the time. Story I heard, one got me here in the first place, said T-A’s wiped the cores dead, before they cut it loose.”

“But you think they are still operative?”

“Lord, yes. About the way Lud is, if you call that operative. What do you think your boxmaker is?”

“What do you know about Maas Biolabs?”

“Moss what?”

“Maas. They make biochips…”

“Oh. Them. Well, that’s all I do know about ‘em…”

“Ludgate speaks of them?”

“He might. Can’t say as I listen all that close. Lud, he does speak a fair bit…”


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Radical Militant Library 0.5.5
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