science fiction & dark fantasy ¦ Dog eat dog: death is sometimes a blessing

Dog Eat Dog {excerpt}

cover for Dog Eat Dog, new fiction for SSF with zombies written by David J Rodger

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DESCRIPTION:

Dog Eat Dog { novel } Dog Eat Dog takes place in the near future, after the Earth has been devastated by a viral pathogen unleashed when a corporate cargo hauler crashed into the atmosphere; breaking up as a fireball across the sky, it showered Southern Europe and North Africa with a deadly rain of infected debris. Ten years later, over seventy percent of the human population is dead and only a handful of cities survive intact. So called ‘Living Cities'. The vast majority of human habitation is abandoned to the undying creatures left mutated through a brutal twist in the infection. Greed and corruption are left hovering over this bleak and brutalized domain and a cosmic horror is now free to infiltrate the remote abandoned corners of the Earth. Above this, the orbital colonies spin within artificial gravity wells, impartial observers, unaffected by the shocking events below. Within this mix the lives of two survivors collide: a renegade intelligence agent and a cold-blooded master of violence, shaping events with their virulent hunger for money and desire to carve their name onto this new world.

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This is really, really good stuff. I'd go as far to say it's the best Sci Fi horror I've read in ten years. I can't think of anything that beats it in terms of action, the innovative ideas per page quota is off the chain, the characters are deep and real. Drobna is the best anti-hero in the genre. A total bad ass, he makes Mad Max look like Stephen Fry.

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1

Carlos stepped away from the battered metal door of the command bunker. A fancy name for what had been a shabby caravan trailer ten years earlier. The woman behind him moaned through her gag. Somebody else chuckled. Men around him spoke briefly in French. Cigarettes were being lit. You could have cut the tension with a knife.

The air was boiling hot, humid and sticky; the command bunker was like an oven in the unrelenting Mediterranean sun. Flies were lazily swirling within the few pools of natural light. Most of the windows were covered and every face in the shadow-choked chamber was slick with sweat. The cigarette smoke wasn’t going to help: but this was a vital moment. Not just for them, but for Carlos too. Finally, after months of proving himself, he had access to the inner circle of this group. He lowered his head, looked outside through a grubby window shielded by strips of metal, squinting against the bright sunlight and watched the leader of this rag-tag bunch of thugs stride through the camp towards the command bunker.

Carlos pushed the heavy-framed spectacles up the greasy skin of his nose; his pulse rate increased several notches. At least his hands had stopped trembling: was he getting used to the effect this man had on those around him?

The man was Marchand; he strode across sun baked mud, between rows of caravans, with his bulky chest pushed ahead of him like a snow plough; guards lowered crossbows and stepped aside at his approach. A mutter went through the command bunker, uncertainty and anticipation; the woman moaned again then squealed wildly through the rag as somebody kicked her.

Marchand entered without uttering a word and scanned the cramped and crowded space. Carlos averted his gaze. Marchand saw the woman and moved forward with deliberate slowness, savouring the look of fear seeping into every aspect of her blood-snot-and-grime-smeared face. She knew him, and knew what he was capable of. In his early fifties he carried his large build with a graceless swagger; a single-handed sword hung from a leather hip-belt and flapped back and forth with every move. The talisman hung around Marchand’s bullish neck from a length of silver chain. Carlos shuddered against his will and found his eyes straying back to the talisman; he resisted the urge to push up the heavy-framed glasses again, cautious not to draw any more attention to them.

Something was said in a harsh military tone; Carlos missed the exact meaning, his thoughts distracted by a swirl of emotions: very unlike him. It wasn’t the woman or her state of distress; he’d learned a long time ago to partition his morality. It was the awareness that the power of the talisman was real: an effect beyond mental suggestion and hypnotic mass hysteria.

Marchand moved closer, his gaze fixed on the woman. Carlos looked at her, pushing the talisman from his mind for a few moments to dwell on what he thought he might be about to see. Evidence of previous episodes had come to his attention during the months he’d been here: lifeless bodies found with a fury of savage wounds, and bloodied marks that matched the curious tattoo Marchand and all his most loyal men shared. The tattoo was their symbol; a sign of their brotherhood. Most of the men in the command bunker had the tattoo; Carlos was one of the few who didn’t.

Those bodies were carted off to the old man who lived alone amongst an area of deserted caravans, next to the shore of the stagnant lake: Sebastian Faust. Carlos had no idea what the bodies were used for after they were found.

There was purpose to the killings; a method and ceremony, it seemed. Carlos wanted to see what Marchand did and to understand the significance to those within the inner circle; those with the tattoo.

The woman was thirty-nine, three years Carlos’ senior, any good-looks lost to the last ten years struggling through poor summers and harsh winters to survive. A heavy face, deeply lined, bad skin flushed red in places. Long hair had been cruelly cut down to dark tufts.

She was naked. Propped upright on a sturdy wooden chair, rolls of fat compressed together around broad hips, hands cuffed behind the slats, bruised ankles cuffed to each chair leg. The chair was covered in dried blood. The blood wasn’t hers. Not yet.

Carlos knew her name but chose not to dwell on that fact.

She stared at Marchand as he stepped closer again; her eyes bugged wide, pleading and watery. The trembling in her body had her head juddering up and down.

Marchand eyed her with all the favour of something he’d just scraped off his leather riding boots. The men packed into the command bunker were jittery and restless. Marchand was unpredictable, psychopathic and violent. Yet they wanted to see their leader enforce their law, and this was an opportunity for a killing. A ceremonial killing?

The woman’s crime: her son had abandoned the settlement without Marchand’s permission. It was feudal law and rough justice.

Carlos maintained an impassive stare. He couldn’t muster up a fake grin of anticipation. He just felt numb. The responsibility for her situation rested on his shoulders. He’d smuggled her son away. He’d stashed the jewellery the son had given him as payment: par for the course.

Marchand grabbed the woman by her face, dirt encrusted fingers sinking into her flabby flesh. She squealed involuntarily, a muffled sound through the filthy rag tied around her bleeding mouth; snorted to catch a breath through her nose. He pushed her head back so that her neck was arched, throat exposed. He lowered his gaze and surveyed sagging breasts and the untidy mess of dark pubic hair, his expression soured with disgust.

The silence had Carlos skin buzzing. It was like waiting for a bomb to explode. He wanted to walk away but the job made him stay.

“Alexandre.”

A middle-aged man stepped forward at Marchand’s prompt; mud spattered fatigues with urban camo tucked into knee-high walking socks; equally muddy sports trainers on his feet; a padded-nylon body warmer over a bare chest; thin but muscular arms. A rainbow coloured belt supported the weight of a hand-axe hanging from one hip.

Marchand didn’t look at Alexandre, didn’t take his gaze from the woman as he forced her head even further back. She struggled to breath and mumbled incomprehensible pleas through the gag.

“Drag this worthless sack of skin and bones over to the lake,” Marchand instructed in French, “Leave her in the chair and put her in the water. See how long she can stand the cold… give her time to contemplate the misbehaviour of her son.”

Marchand let go of her face. Her head swung forward and she sobbed and gasped through the gag. Marchand drove a fist into her mid-riff, and leaned in close as the woman rocked forward, retching.

“I want you to remember how good I’ve been to you and your people.”

The woman sucked in air through her nose; saliva and mucus slid down from the gag.

“Hmmm?” he enquired if she understood.

Her body shuddered with a sob.

Marchand grabbed one of her sagging breasts in a violent grip and twisted it. The woman thrashed against her bonds, squealing in pain.

Carlos felt a mixture of anger and disappointment. Anger at Marchand’s brutality, and paradoxically disappointment at the realisation he wasn’t going to witness the power of the talisman.

 

 

 

The sun was cooking the parched ground, it hadn’t rained for weeks. The air must have been 40c plus. Carlos dealt with it, walking at a steady pace, not swinging his arms, conserving energy and reducing the amount of moisture evaporating from him. His grubby clothes and strips of leather armour were stained with overlapping sweat stains; he probably reeked but he was impervious to such smells these days.

He was fourteen kilometres North East of Le Lac des Rêves, the place he’d been calling home for the past four months; he was walking along the badly weathered surface of what had once been a major motorway, the A9 Autoroute. Like most strips of tarmac it had suffered from weathering without repair over the past ten years. No vehicles had passed him in the two hours he’d been walking along it; no carts; no horses; no people. The silence was vast but not ubiquitous: the repetitive clicks and chirps of little insects coming from the overgrown wilderness either side of the road, kept him company. It was probably too hot for the few survivors who were settled here to venture out on any unnecessary journeys; and the majority of people still left here would be working the dehydrated fields for food or crafting objects that they would take to the traders in Montpellier, when it wasn’t so hot.

It was good to be away from Marchand’s filthy camp and the oppressive aggression required for survival there. Yet despite the almost idyllic pastoral calm of where he was at this moment, if you cracked open the emotional shields and peered at the reality, you saw debris of a civilisation ravaged, sent into a wild panic of exodus and almost wiped out in days.

Days.

Airborne viral pathogens that became a human-to-human contamination; people ran but there was nowhere to run too, unless you had the connections to get yourself up into orbit.

Every empty building he passed could remind him of the fact most people on the planet had died, or changed; every stripped down shell of a structure telegraphed the desperate needs of those who had survived.

And there were other risks. Something most survivors dreaded beyond starvation, bandits or storm-curtains.

Infected. People that should have died but didn’t, who remained as a scourge, alive but not alive, mindless with rage, spreading their disease through frenzied attacks, getting their dirty teeth into your flesh, biting, tearing. And then you became one of them.

Carlos shivered despite the heat and realised he’d been holding his breath, bug-eyed, walking in momentary daze of remembered horror. He breathed in and grimaced. Checked his surroundings.

Even out here you couldn’t afford to be complacent. Every cluster of ruined structures along the road held the risk of Infected. True, most Infected beyond the Dead Zones here had been hacked down but there was always a risk of finding one lurking in some derelict building. And they didn’t hesitate. They moved quickly and aggressively.

He wiped a palm across his face to try and smear away the sweat. His eyes stung as a result.

Licking his cracked lips Carlos chose not to think about the half-litre of water he had with him; in a battered hydrogel bottle, the label long since peeled away after years of re-use. He knew he would need that water for the return hike. There was another half kilometre or so to his destination, then five minutes of dicking around before he could start to make his way back. Hopefully nobody in Marchand’s crew would ask awkward questions about where he had been; so far he’d made seven of these trips without raising suspicion.

He saw the marker. It was a two-story farmhouse, concrete walls covered in badly drawn graffiti and a later layer of wild vines; an intact roof of beige-coloured tiles; smashed windows; twisted guttering dangling from the eaves. Burned into the roof tiles was a symbol that resembled an oval shape with two large circles within it: the result of a high power laser from orbit, although to any casual observer it was just another bit of accumulated vandalism. The marker was his prompt to pay attention.

Carlos scanned the edge of the road ahead and saw the subtle break in the wildly overgrown maquis; this was where a small access road had once joined the Autoroute, now almost entirely overwhelmed by nature left to run her course for the past ten years. The access road led to the badly damaged farm-house. He adjusted the small day-sack he had across his back, stepped off the road and pushed his way through the break, careful not to leave too much sign, and began to follow the barely visible route of the access road.

He pushed his way through rubbery, broad-leaved shrubs. Many were aromatic and he caught strong scents of mint, laurel, and myrtle.

Approaching the farmhouse he orientated himself with the south west facing wall and began walking through an expanse of small trees, stopping at a fig tree having counted off thirty paces, remembering the number in case he needed to return to this spot.

He un-slung his backpack, extracted a sharp edged trowel wrapped in a dirty shirt. Getting onto his knees by the base of the fig tree he used the trowel to dig down by the roots. The tree provided no shade and the intense sun blazed against him. Sweat began to trickle freely from his crudely shaved hairline. Flies began performing aerial displays around his face.

With a small but deep hole completed, he unscrewed the handle of the trowel, tapped out a rolled-up ziplock bag, and then a small semi-opaque hydrogel container of which there were four remaining. If the job was to last any more than another two months he’d need to arrange a dead letter drop to replenish his gear.

Carlos opened up the small leather pouch strapped to the belt around his waist; took out the thick-framed glasses; extracted the sliver of a data-chip: a whole MU of video and audio footage recorded through the glasses over the past two weeks.

He carefully inserted the data-chip into the semi-opaque container, then used a cracked and dirt-engrained finger nail to activate the locator beacon. Somewhere a few hundred miles above his head a satellite would be registering the signal and starting a chain of events that would result in a team coming down at some point in the next few days to retrieve the data.

His employer was interested in Le Lac des Rêves; specifically in Jean Marchand and the group of men who followed him.

The original brief from his employer had been the usual: infiltrate, observe, document and provide evidence of criminal activities likely to destabilise a community attempting to grow within the wreckage of post-Yellow Dawn. In this case it was the large spread of farms and artisan workshops that had sprung up in the rural areas beyond Montpellier. Montpellier was classed as a Living City but it was small and had a brutal Dead Zone. The farms and artisans created a support zone that was typical for the phenomenon of Living Cities in this post-Yellow Dawn world. Marchand and his men were terrorising these people; a parasitical force. The question Carlos had originally intended to answer was: how much was Marchand operating as an independent criminal force? Or was he working to an agenda; a paid operative?

This job was different from all the others. Marchand wasn’t just involved in the usual trade of banditry; there was a dark, unspoken core to the loyalty the men had towards Marchand. The wilderness began spawning tales of new religions and a return to pagan ways with echoes of the Dark Ages within weeks of Yellow Dawn taking place. Ever since survivors in the Living Cities got the power back on and started blogging about what the hell had just happened, these stories spread and multiplied. People lapped them up, notably people in the unaffected comfort of orbit and deep space.

The talisman entered Carlos’ thoughts; although to be truthful with himself, he acknowledged it had never really been absent from them. He could see it almost as if it was within touching distance, disembodied yet still attached to the twisted threads of silver chain around Marchand’s neck. It wasn’t much to look at; a thin ovoid sliver of a solid creamy white substance that reminded him of a guitar pick; but there was an organic quality to it, not plastic. It had a faint mother-of-pearl effect on its surface. The whole thing was only the size of a thumbnail, couched in a framework of silver which Carlos sensed, somehow, without knowing why, was merely ornate and unnecessary decoration.

Thinking about it now, Carlos felt as if there were tendrils of the thing reaching beyond what was physically visible.

An image formed in his mind of something he’d never seen before, but which struck him as both familiar and horrible. Carlos frowned, wondering if it was the sun baking his brain or simply an over-active imagination. Yet the image gained focus and substance within the vision of his mind.

What is this…?

He found himself staring at a wide bottomed inverted cone, like a curved pyramid, perched on a rocky outcrop surrounded on all sides by a steep descent covered in trees. The conical pyramid grabbed his attention, demanded it even. It grew rapidly within his vision as if he were being dragged towards it. There was a terrible buzzing sound, and for a moment it was as if he could see the supporting mesh-like structure beneath the smooth clay surface; the mesh was brown and organic, glistening with a pale milky excretion mixed with blood from the guts, gore and gristle packed around it.

There are bodies inside.

Abruptly the vision or hallucination or whatever it was vanished from his mind, leaving only a lingering sense of depression and anxiety.

He frowned, staring down at the small deep hole he’d just dug in the dry earth; his eyes narrowed… it was as if he had made a connection with it, or rather, it had made a connection with him. But that suggested it was somehow sentient, malevolent even, and that was ridiculous. It was the people who acted upon what they believed that made something malevolent, not the inanimate object itself.

People like me, he wondered?

Some sickening sensation of guilt lapped at the distant shores of his conscience; Carlos snapped away from such thoughts and focussed on the here and now. A bead of sweat dripped from the end of nose onto his deeply tanned forearm; he watched it spread and merge with the layer of glistening moisture and the sparse follicles of dark hair turned blonde by the sun. His skin was covered in scabbed scratches and accumulated filth of living weeks without washing.

He would need to start heading back soon. He didn’t want to risk Marchand or his men becoming suspicious towards him; Carlos needed to further cajole and ingratiate his way into the inner core of what was taking place at Le Lac des Rêves. He snapped down the lid on the semi-opaque container, placed it within the hole and used his hands to push the pile of loose earth back onto it. He patted it down but not enough to make it obvious.

Grimacing in the relentless heat he picked up the small ziplock of blank data-chips he’d extracted from inside the trowel handle; moisture from his fingers made the ziplock slippy and made it difficult handling the delicate slivers of raw memory. He inserted a blank data-chip into the thick-rimmed glasses and returned those to the leather pouch around his waist. Then repacked the trowel handle, screwed it back into place and dragged the handle through the dirt a couple of times to add context.

He took the hydrogel water bottle from his day sack, slung the day sack over a shoulder, then rose up from one knee and began to swagger his way towards the marked farmhouse. He unscrewed the worn hydrogel cap and took a slug of warm gritty water.

Marchand had a supply of fairly clean water for the camp at Le Lac des Rêves; some technical boffin who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time and picked up by Marchand’s men; doing anything on the promise of Marchand not harming his wife; the boffin had no idea his wife was currently the plaything for every dirty dick in the camp. The water was good though.

Carlos stopped in his tracks. A sound had caught his ear. His eyes tracked from the ruined farmhouse, across the overgrown terrain to the silent black strip of Autoroute. A vehicle was approaching. Combustion engine, still some distance away but approaching fast; rough gear changes and high revs.

Years of training snapped into focus; he hunkered low and covered twenty metres at speed, angling away from the building. He looked for a place where he could drop down and observe with minimal risk of being seen. Several more loping strides he saw a shallow depression flanked by several small trees. He threw himself down and scrabbled round in a small cloud of dust so he was facing the road. The sound of the approaching vehicle told him it was only a couple hundred metres away. He rolled onto his side long enough to hook his free arm through the empty strap of the day sack; he wanted to be free to sprint if he needed to, without having something hanging from one shoulder. He kept the water bottle in one hand.

A glint of sunlight reflecting off windshield caught his eye and he saw a battered pickup zooming into view. It was coming from the direction of Marseilles, which also meant it could be connected to Le Lac des Rêves and Marchand: that idea made his chest tighten and his skin tingle. It had a small cab and a flatbed with high sides; the passenger window was down, a tanned forearm visible; wire mesh covered all of the windows.

The sun was baking the back of his head and neck but he didn’t move.

Abruptly the pickup began to decelerate, more rough gear changes; the driver was aggressive but inexperienced. Carlos guessed there was only room for two people in the cab; the driver and passenger.

The pickup swerved onto the far edge of the road and stopped, only metres from the break in the maquis.

Shit, who the hell are you?

Carlos snaked one hand down to his thigh and began to unfasten the clip holding his hunting knife in its sheath.

Two men jumped out of the pickup; both pushed their respective doors to without slamming them. They were both glancing around, scanning the terrain, looking for something or somebody.

Looking for me?

Both men were similar in build and appearance; white skinned, recent tans, muscled and toned. The men were dressed in scavenger gear but they looked too well-fed and ‘cosmetically’ gritty to be the real deal. He began to wind down his state of tension; he had an idea what this was about.

“Carlos Revira!” one of the men shouted in English, his voice clear and authoritative; it wasn’t the name Carlos used at Le Lac des Rêves.

“Agent Revira we’re from Central,” the other man called out, “Please identify yourself.”

Carlos whistled to catch their attention and slowly got up onto his feet. Both men saw him and nodded, began to approach purposeful but unthreatening. Carlos didn’t bother to move to meet them; he took a deep gulp of warm water, did some Balinese hand movements to get the flies out of his face and waited for them to come to him. If they were from Central then they must have been camped out nearby waiting for the beacon to activate.

Both men would be low rank field agents, probably on support duty to boost their experience. They seemed relieved to be finally meeting their mark; they also came across as a little wary and Carlos guessed they were inwardly shocked at the state of his appearance.

“Hello sir, can you code-in?” the authoritative one requested formally.

Carlos grimaced; he always suffered an unpleasant disorientation when ‘the office’ intruded on his wilderness time. “Sure,” he began in French out of habit and then switched to English, “Alpha-Romeo-Bravo. Six, niner, six, two, echo, echo. How’s that?”

“That’s fine sir, thank you.”

The less authoritative one stepped closer and began to talk conversationally, “We’ve been sent direct from Director Reinhardt.”

“The big man himself, eh?” Carlos didn’t conceal his disdain. Gerard Reinhardt was the Director of E-FIB, or what remained of the Eurofederation Intelligence Bureau following the catastrophe of Yellow Dawn. Reinhardt was also the man who had simultaneously fucked his life and given him a career. It was a complicated relationship.

“Er, yes sir. There’s been a development and the Director wishes to change your O-D with immediate-”

“Effect,” Carlos interrupted, already second guessing the conversation, “You’re kidding me, right?”

“No sir.”

“What bloody development?” Carlos was angry about the potential they were going to say something that meant he’d just wasted four months of his life; but inwardly, a separate voice in his mind was confessing he was shocked at the idea he wasn’t going to get a chance to get near to the talisman.

“Well, it's a bit difficult to explain but the easiest way I can say it is that somebody just bought E-FIB.”

Carlos narrowed his eyes, necked a long sip of warm water, abruptly aware of the nauseous taste of degrading hydrogel that he’d been suppressing for weeks now. He used the pause to allow the information to sink in. A grin spread across his face and cracked his lips.

“So the old man is out of a job with the new management coming in, that right?”

“I couldn’t comment sir. We’ve been instructed to escort you back to Aigues-Mortes with immediate-”

“Effect,” Carlos finished the sentence quickly, again, “Uh-huh, and what about the data I’ve just dropped off.”

“We’re to collect that first.”

Carlos nodded, stepped aside and held out his arm to gesture the general direction of the DLD. “Happy digging. I don’t suppose that heap of shit you’re driving has aircon?”

“No, sir, it doesn’t,” the authoritative one responded.

“That figures.”

 

 


 

 

 

 

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manhattan stretched below him all lit up like a Christmas tree. Mikhail Drobná smiled and felt the thick folds of scar tissue stretch across his face. He was on the 60th floor of the d’Cota building, gazing out through thick plate glass, savouring the breeze of air-control and ignoring the heavy scent of perfume wafting off the girl who was getting undressed behind him. He swirled a brandy glass within one massive hand and took a sniff: the sharp tang was rich and inviting; the liquor was over 130 years old, so he’d been told; part of Mr d’Cota’s personal stash, but Drobná had privileges in this place.

His eyes traced the boundary between light and dark down there, following the line of the Hudson River, the boundary between life and death…and undeath. He enjoyed this view at night, when everything beyond the Living City was lost within the darkness. If he walked to the other side of the vast room he could look down and see an identical sight: the lights of Manhattan Island and an endless uninterrupted sea of darkness beyond the East River. A thousand horror stories would be playing out there in the Dead Zone, all the travellers who’d not managed to get a ride through before the sun went down; it was bad enough trying to make that twenty-mile journey during the day but at night, you were alone in the dark with the risk of any noise bringing Them screaming onto you.

Drobná thought about his father and wondered if the worthless fuck was alive or dead. The smile faded, and Drobná grunted involuntarily, aware of the familiar sour mood seeping into his state of mind. He wanted to tell the girl to hurry the fuck up but stayed silent. Against his will his gaze drifted high above the city lights and drilled far into the endless darkness, his vision blurred with the strain whilst his brain segued into distant memories that were as vivid as yesterday. He began to mutter a familiar mantra, something the doc had once said before giving up on him, “Keep moving, keep busy…don’t relax. Relaxing lets the bad thoughts in.”

Or maybe the doc had never actually used those words but Drobná had just modified the statement to make it fit how he wanted.

But he couldn’t move just yet, there was work to be done. So he stood where he was and swirled the brandy in the glass.

Standing still gave the bad thoughts time to form:

In his mind’s-eye the sloshing liquid became the bottle in his father’s meaty left hand; a memory forever burned into his brain; the bruised knuckles clenching the bottle neck, and the blood spatters not even dry, dripping down his father’s wrist: it was the night he had walked in and found his father with mother. The night his shitty miserable world got flushed down the toilet. The night that left him living with regret for a failure to be a man.

His thoughts flipped back to the here and now. What was he doing in this place? Enduring this tedium of fulfilling a rich man’s whims; this wasn’t his future, his destiny lied in the blood and entrails of other men, in the thrill of something he didn’t yet have…something he couldn’t even define. It was a feeling, a yearning, a desire to break free of this city and this cage of luxury. New empires were being carved out in the wilderness. He could be a part of that, if the right opportunity came along…or if he got out and found it.

Never turn from the fear, face it head on.

He needed a new chapter in his book. His thoughts flipped back to his past. Drobná ran through the story the doc had patched together with him during the few weeks he’d tried to get help: distilled into a simple summary of trauma that led to him becoming the man he was now.

Born in Toronto to a Russian father and a Polish mother. Father was a long haul driver and was rarely home. Mother was a cook in a local school and made the best Bigos in the world.

When he was eight, his mother got sick. The company she worked for had a good health policy and looked after her, but then the company got bought out by another, larger company and somewhere in the shifting contracts and pathetic union resistance his mother lost her healthcare and financial support. Drobná started bunking off school so he could look after her. His father changed jobs, became a delivery truck driver, but obviously lost the freedom of the long roads. He developed a taste for cheap whisky and a hatred of the burden his wife had become.

At the age of nine Drobná came home from school early one afternoon and saw his father’s truck parked outside the house; walked inside and found his mother’s wheelchair lying on its side on the kitchen floor. Mother was lying there in a pool of blood. She’d been beaten and then stabbed to death. His father was sitting on the sofa in the next room, still clutching the knife, too drunk to stand and sobbing how sorry he was…slurring Russian… saying “come to papa”.

Drobná turned and ran.

He wished he’d killed him.

His father was arrested but somehow got free on a technicality after only eight months in custody. Drobná was placed within the juvenile care system where his size ensured every thug wanted to take him down to prove their superiority. He had to learn to fight. He grew up nurturing a hatred for his father; he dreamed of finding him and hurting him. During the endless scuffles in school and the care homes, when he broke their teeth and bones…Drobná would always picture his father in his mind.

As he grew older he put on muscle, the care system moved him around as a trouble-maker; eventually dumping him on a remote farm in Saskatchewan until he was eighteen. There were good memories there, but even that turned to shit.

A bunch of hired farm hands were driving West at the end of the season and invited him to join them. He landed a job in Vancouver, working the door of a gritty club on Granville Island. The first time he killed somebody he was nineteen: a punk who didn’t like being denied entry and pulled a knife. The authorities wanted to prosecute but Drobná got off on self-defence. The detective in charge of the case was working for the local criminal network and the rest was history. The detective gave him ‘work’ and kept him one step ahead of the law: like being back in the care-homes, every time he fucked somebody up, he always pictured his father in his mind.

Yellow Dawn happened when he was twenty-eight, and that changed everything.

“Okay now what?” the girl’s low-class accent interrupted his thoughts. Drobná’s eyes shifted focus on the plate glass window he’d been gazing through; Manhattan blurred and the reflection of the girl came up sharp. She was naked. Almost; a shiny blue triangle between her legs. He swung round to face the room, moving his gargantuan, muscular, two-metre tall bulk without aggression. She was staring at his face; he could feel the point of her gaze tracing the savage scars. He stepped to one side and placed the brandy glass on the plinth occupied by a marble head: several hundred years old, from Europe, apparently.

Drobná gave her a look that included the tacky panties.

She returned a resentful, defiant glare but couldn’t hide the fear of him. That didn’t make him feel good. Another example of how he would never be able to fit in to a place like this. He was a freak. Mr d’Cota’s personal Frankenstein monster; only he’d been born and raised, not put together from the parts of dead men.

Then her eyes did another exaggerated scan of the room soaking up the exuberant wealth and luxury portrayed by every object within it. A twitch lifted one corner of her mouth. Drobná didn’t say anything; he just watched, like he’d watched countless girls before her. The money spoke of power and avenues of escape; the money always won.

He’d already told her to remove everything and he could see her working out he wasn’t a man to ask twice. In a quick move she stooped, took the panties down and unhooked one leg leaving them dangling around one foot with cherry-painted toenails. Whipping her foot she flicked them towards him, falling short. He didn’t budge.

“Satisfied? What’s this for anyway?” she complained.

“To make sure you haven’t got a dick.”

She gave him the finger, “Lap it up wiseass.”

He smirked at her bravado then gestured for her to come closer. She hesitated a moment, then slinked across the thick grey carpet, moving between two long leather sofas that probably cost more than this girl could ever make in a lifetime. How many cock-sucks and anal gang-bangs would she need to endure to even earn what she was getting for this one night with Mr d’Cota?

Drobná didn’t react to the teasing wiggle of her hips or the alluring smile spreading like honey across her lips as she held his eyes, moving closer. He’d met a thousand women like this long before he’d gotten bored fucking them; these were the only kind of women he got now; his face made sure of that.

She moved right up against him and shivered in the downwash of the air-con. “You get first try? Is that the deal?” she said coyly, unafraid of him or just high: he’d soon find out. The smell of her cheap perfume masked stale sweat; he doubted she’d seen soap in ten years.

Drobná smirked, took her gently by the shoulders and eased her back a step, his massive hands exaggerating her small frame, undernourished but firm. Quietly, calmly, he checked each arm; lifting them up to examine her armpits; he checked her ankles, between her toes, behind her knees. He examined her scalp for lice. Took a swab from inside her mouth.

Throughout all of this she followed his face with her eyes; her ethnic-blend of features frozen in a bemused expression.

Extracting latex gloves from a small hydrogel bag inside his jacket pocket, he told her to bend over. She silently complied. He examined her cunt and her arsehole with his fingers; he didn’t bother being delicate. Somewhere between sixteen and twenty years old, she’d probably been sucking dicks to survive since before she was ten. The only way for a girl like this to survive in the Living City, where space was at a premium far more than at any time before Yellow Dawn: three million survivors packed into a cramped box of glass, steel and concrete, protected by rivers, and bridges forming infection-free zones guarded by flame-thrower towers. Or maybe it was only recent misfortune that dumped her in the gutter? It didn’t matter to him. He knew the places to find girls like this. Girls desired by Mr d’Cota.

Removing the latex gloves he dropped them on the floor, then extracted a small Solite torch from a top pocket, opened her mouth and probed her teeth with his fingers. Using the beam of the torch he examined her tongue, the roof of her mouth, the insides of her cheeks. She had a good smile, he thought, and a slutty mouth: one of Mr d’Cota’s requested criteria.

He returned the Solite to his top pocket, extracted his PA and checked the hardscreen for the results from the swab-gizmo: all clear, no viral contamination, no STDs. He’d felt no warts or sores inside of her.

Stepping away abruptly, he scooped up the brandy glass, took a gulp and began to rattle through a familiar monologue:

“You’ll find a bathroom through there,” he gave a cursory nod to a door of solid polished wood, “Wash the smell of the street off you. There’s make-up. Don’t try and steal anything. I’ll be frisking you before you leave. I find anything, I hurt you. You tell anybody about tonight, about who you’re with, I’ll find you and hurt you. My employer’s a lot nicer than me but he’s not interested in sob stories or relationships. He’s trusted me to find him somebody entertaining. Don’t let me down.”

A cunning smile parted her lips, “Sure thing, honey.”

She turned on her toes and began to move away, stooping to collect her discarded panties before scurrying towards the bathroom door.

Pausing, she swung round to face him and pulled a face that said she had something to tell him.

Drobná angled his head and raised an eyebrow, inquisitive.

She patted her shaved crotch, “I need a dick like you need a mirror.”

He laughed, genuinely amused by her insult, and felt the thick folds of scar tissue stretch like toughened rubber.

The bathroom door closed behind her; his stomach rumbled. He dwelled on the idea of steak but knew it would have to wait. He sipped brandy and voice-dialled Mr d’Cota’s personal secretary to let him know the girl would be ready.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two E-FIB agents dropped him off on the potholed Route de Nîmes, five hundred metres from the medieval, castle-like town of Aigues-Mortes; they didn’t want to go through the hassle of the security checks to get through the main gate.

He jumped out from the pick-up’s flatbed and went round to the cab. The activity brought out an immediate sweat; the sun beating down without mercy. He glanced at the scavenged shells of residential buildings with an instinctive apprehension; long since abandoned, this area was technically a Dead Zone, albeit a very small one but Aigues-Mortes had taken special measures to hunt down and remove all Infected.

Even so, the sparse yet ubiquitous clusters of travellers and merchants he’d seen on the road, clattering along with their horses, wagons and travois, all moved very slowly and very quietly when they reached this stage of their journey.

One of the E-FIB agents handed him a cash card loaded with 10,000 credits: a bonus from Director Reinhardt. They passed on Reinhardt’s personal message: one day of decompression, then Marseilles and Hotel Regina, booked under his name. Carlos stuffed the cash card into the leather pouch hanging from his belt, beside the thick-rimmed glasses.

Marseilles?

That was going to be one heck of a journey, but then Carlos caught himself and realised he was still thinking like a survivor. Why had Reinhardt brought him here to Aigues-Mortes? Montpellier was a Living City and only a stones-throw from Marchand’s camp at Le Lac des Rêves; whereas they’d just driven fifty or so kilometres east, in the opposite direction to reach this place; taking the long looping route to avoid the risky Dead Zone of Lunel. Then Carlos saw Reinhardt’s thinking: there was little or no risk of Marchands’ men being here in Aigues-Mortes. Was Reinhardt leaving an option for him to return at some point in the future? Or was this simply a clean fracture from his recent existence? The latter notion resulted in a flash thought of the talisman followed by a pulse of anxiety. What was that about? He threw his mind in another direction: one day of decompression, it wasn’t much time.

Carlos slapped his palm on the pick-up’s cab with a peremptory goodbye, and walked away.

The pick-up did a three-point turn as Carlos headed towards Aigues-Mortes; a number of crashed gear changes caused him to cringe and glance at the stripped-down remains of the few surrounding buildings: if there were any Infected lurking they’d be out with a noise like that.

Carlos kept moving, a quick and strong-legged stride. An oven-like heat reflected up from the weathered tarmac. There was nothing on the road ahead of him. About three-hundred and fifty metres away, the skeletal tangle of collapsed buildings, the outcome of intensive scavenging, gave way to an open area occupied by a canal and a small road bridge. Beyond that rose the unbroken bulk of Aigues-Mortes. Quickly the sound of the pick-up’s engine faded into the distance and a new sound settled onto his ears: a muffled chorus of blacksmiths striking new metal; the throbbing hum of pumps, generators and other machinery; music, both modern and old; and the vocal calls of hawkers and several thousand survivors packed into a rectangle of fortified stone. He saw the moving outlines of the settlement’s watch, silhouetted against the bright blue sky, as they walked the upper ramparts of those vast and imposing walls.

Carlos knew Aigues-Mortes from hearsay and research. Ironically, up until this morning, Carlos would have been considered an enemy of the settlement; he’d been part of the relentless raids on merchant and supply convoys travelling between Aigues-Mortes and Montpellier, rich-pickings feeding and funding Marchand’s steadily increasing influence in the area. Carlos had a vague, uneasy feeling that he might be about to walk into a world of trouble if somebody pegged him as part of Marchand’s bandit group.

Dating back to the 13th Century, the fortress had a historical pedigree for security which allowed its current masters to pick and choose the type of survivor it wanted as residents: typically wealthy, industrious and connected.

Reaching the small road bridge, he saw that several of the watch had stopped walking the ramparts and were now observing his approach. The canal split away in three directions; cluttered with moored barges, ready for loading or already unloaded of cargo. This was the settlement’s Golden Goose, providing access and transport for major settlements running North and West through to the Atlantic via Bordeaux, and further into the heart of what remained of France; and a short distance South West to Le Grau-du-Roi connecting to the Mediterranean Sea and the network of surviving shipping routes beyond.

Ahead of him, across the bridge, several streets remained intact, running parallel to the eastern wall of the fort; their residential and commercial buildings repaired and maintained. The open ground between these streets, the canal and the Eastern wall was occupied by a dense cluster of tents and marquees; a haze of wood smoke filled the air, laced with a jumble of cooking smells. Various slovenly dressed people tended stalls or moved between them. Carlos smirked at the notion this probably didn’t look much different to how it would have been five hundred years ago. Manky horses tethered to stakes in the ground; rickety carts readied for loading or in the process of unloading; a few men-at-arms loitered where they were paid to do so; Carlos noted them and saw single-handed axes, crossbows, swords. One lump of a man had a pump-action shotgun cradled comfortably against his chest; Carlos scanned the trading table the lump was guarding and was pleased by his guess: an outpost for the CRC.

The modern world was still visible, primarily through the mismatched collections of scavenged clothing being worn. Such things were typically supplied by a CRC outlet like this one. The CRC (City Recovery Corps) was a professional scavenging company: now a big business after ten years of skimming the lost property of the dead. These clothes, and anything else of even basic value, would have been taken from the billions of homes and factories left virtually frozen in time by the speed and ferocity of the K-wave, Yellow Dawn’s opening lethal blow against humanity.

In the same way that Carlos scanned and second-guessed the people and their purpose, so he too was being observed and scrutinised. Two surly, Arabic-looking youths detached themselves from a military-grade tent on the outer edge of this makeshift encampment and began striding towards him.

One of them held a policeman’s telescopic baton in a clenched fist; but otherwise they appeared to be unarmed.

Brave or stupid, Carlos wondered, aware they were in view of the watchmen on the walls, and that Aigues-Mortes wouldn’t want to deter visitors. Unless of course you look like a bandit, he suspected.

“Fifty copper and we’ll get you inside,” Baton Boy grunted in French. His companion was a well-built skinhead with hand-inked tattoos covering his neck, shoulders and arms; probably good with using his muscle to grab and restrain. Both of them stopped several paces in front of him and waited for his response.

Can’t appear to be a trouble-maker, Carlos thought through his options, taking a moment to squint up at the watch gazing down on the confrontation. These boys were simply opportunists, he judged. They’d stay for as long as they could until the watch took action to move them on, or until a bigger group of thugs took them out.

“What makes you think I need your help?” Carlos replied in French, coming to a stop two paces away, grinning with clenched teeth.

Something in Carlos’ tone, in the undaunted confidence of his body language set off alarm bells in the skinhead who took an immediate step backwards. Baton Boy didn’t seem to have the same instinctive survival skills.

“I’m not asking, mother cunt licker,” Baton Boy told him. “You look like marsh scum, the fucking flies are even sick by your smell. You won’t get in without our help. Give us the money or give us your things.”

The skinhead seemed reassured by his companion’s aggression and stepped forward again. “Think you’re something special, huh? I’m going to fuck you up unless you hand over the money. Hand it over now.”

Carlos held up both his hands, palms open, in a peaceful gesture, “Okay, okay. But I tell you what, here’s an offer. If you’re so sure I’ll not get inside, why don’t you let me try and if I fail, then I’ll give you…fifty copper each. How does that sound?”

Baton Boy raised his weapon arm and threatened to lunge forward, “Wasting our time you mother’s cunt.”

Carlos didn’t flinch, kept his hands out and palms open, “No seriously, seriously, I’ll give you fifty each, make it sixty but that’s almost all I have. Okay? Come on, look I don’t want any trouble. I’ve come a long way, I’m tired. Let me try and if you’re right, then you’ve won both times. What do you say?”

“Give him his chance, Marco, let the fool fuck himself,” Skinhead said to his companion, and then addressed Carlos, “But you fail, you give us everything you have.”

Carlos nodded his agreement, switched his attention back to Baton Boy who was obviously itching to get to the violence but Skinhead appeared to be the restraining-element of their partnership.

Baton Boy lowered his weapon arm and stepped back and to the side, creating an opening for Carlos to move through. Skinhead made the mistake of folding his arms.

Carlos dropped his gaze, as if dropping his guard and began to move forward, all his senses straining towards Baton Boy.

Sure enough, Baton Boy couldn’t resist the opportunity for an easy first-strike. As Carlos stepped between them Baton Boy whipped up the telescopic baton and moved into a position directly behind him to deliver a blow to his skull.

Carlos was already spinning round, at the same time stepping to the right, away from the incoming blow and from Skinhead’s huge arms.

The telescopic baton whipped down; Carlos blocked it with his forearm, taking the blow on the toughened leather wrist guard, moving with it, stepping in, grabbing Baton Boy’s weapon arm and hand, twisting, using his opponent’s forward momentum against him.

Baton Boy screamed in shock and rage as the telescopic weapon fell from his grip. Carlos jerked his head to the side and caught Baton Boy full on the face with the edge of his skull. He heard and felt the crunch of nasal cartilage and bone, then the explosive hiss of air and blood. Carlos grimaced, and tried to orientate himself in regards to Skinhead, but the big guy had moved. Baton Boy fell away and staggered back, clutching his face and screaming; blood was running freely between his hands.

Carlos heard a yell behind him and felt Skinhead lunge into him, hands like blocks of rough stone grabbing his arms, trying to lock him into an embrace. Carlos snapped his head back but Skinhead was alert and ready for him. Carlos kicked with his legs against the sun-baked tarmac, forcing them both to stagger backwards. Baton Boy was out of the picture for now, feeling sorry for himself and wailing in pain. Carlos controlled his feeling of ballooning panic: Skinhead was going to be a problem. Out of instinct he tried to gland the cocktail of adrenaline and aggression boosting hormones, but his implant was dry; everything used-up in the past four months of playing bandit.

He kept pushing back and jabbing his elbows into the space behind him, but the day sack on his back was giving Skinhead plenty of room to work with.

Then Skinhead lost his footing and both of them tumbled to the ground. Carlos struck the ground with his hip and Skinhead landed on top of him, crushing the air from his lungs. Carlos arched his back, kicking, bucking, and struggling to reach his hand down to his sheathed knife. Skinhead wriggled around, buried into him, gaining the advantage as the toes of his boots dug against the ground; then his knees were digging painfully into Carlos’ legs; the top of his scab-ridden skinhead slammed into his jaw and pushed down hard. The blow was a shock and sent his brain spinning.

Skinhead got all of his weight and muscle to bear onto him, pressing down, keeping his arms pinned.

“Marco? Marco?” Skinhead lifted his head to look up and call out.

Marco howled, Marco staggered, Marco spat out blood and sank to his knees.

Skinhead, who was now a hairless silhouette against the ball-baking sun above them, snapped a hateful gaze onto Carlos. Carlos could taste the guy’s sweat on his lips and feel the lingering impression of his skull against his jaw. Carlos cringed, waiting for the head butt. Skinhead decided to strangle him instead; small but brutal hands closed around his throat and Carlos saw saliva spray from Skinhead’s twisted lips as he growled with rage. The grip around his throat was like a stone vice: Carlos felt as though his brain was swelling to the point where it would explode.

Carlos kicked his heels against the tarmac, trying to push up, bucking his hips; he tried to writhe out from under him, but Skinhead’s mass was overwhelming and Carlos just got a load of road grit scraping through the gaps in between the strips of leather armour, cutting into his flesh. The heat of the tarmac was starting to cook his back, pushing through the core of his body in a grilling wave; matching the sickening heat building up around his neck and face as Skinhead continued to throttle the life out of him.

Carlos tried to reach down to the sheathed knife but couldn’t get his hand past Skinhead’s body, the way it was pinned against him.

Carlos slapped his hands into Skinhead’s face but he couldn’t get his full strength into it and the blow just bounced off the man’s determination to kill him. Carlos really started to panic. He saw his hands, surreally, as if they belonged to somebody else, claw at Skinhead’s face but they just seemed to slip and slide off the man’s enraged sweat-greased features.

With what felt like the last reserve of strength, Carlos pushed up one shoulder, allowing him to get a grip with both hands around the back of Skinhead’s skull, in the same instant he drove his thumbs into the soft gelatinous orbs of his eyes.

Skinhead roared with pain and rage. He lowered his face and shook his head from side to side like a madman; Carlos drove his thumbs in deeper but couldn’t deliver the damage he needed because his hands were starting to slip from his skull. Skinhead drove his chin downwards in a desperate attempt to shake off the attack on his eyes; forcing him to ease the grip around Carlos’ neck. It also shifted the way Skinhead lay against him; Carlos sensed Skinhead’s mass and drove up a knee straight into his groin. Saliva exploded across Carlos’ face as Skinhead grunted in shock. Carlos slammed his knee up again and again, as fast and brutally as he could. Skinhead tried to re-establish his dominating throttle but Carlos used the momentary reprieve from the blood-stopping pressure; he got his shoulder up again, got a grip on the back of Skinhead’s skull with one hand and began to drive a barrage of punches into his face.

Carlos pulled away from him, letting go of his head, punching and kicking. Skinhead managed to get a grip on the upper strips of leather armour crossing his chest. The fucker wouldn’t let go. Carlos managed to turn on his side with Skinhead hanging on beside him, front down, hands on his chest; he thought about going for the knife.

A blow struck the back of his head, sending stars and flashes shooting across his vision. His punches went wild and he realised he was dangerously close to passing out; a stream of verbal abuse in French told him Baton Boy had recovered enough to come looking for payback. Carlos heard the instructions to Skinhead: hold him down, let me stamp on his fucking face.

Skinhead began to scrabble forward, regaining the vital advantage.

Then a sound that wasn’t familiar but Carlos had heard a hundred times: the ratchet noise of a pump-action shotgun getting a shell loaded.

A gruff male voice told them to break it up.

There were curses; Carlos took a couple punches to his face, then abruptly Skinhead pulled back, crawled, turned round and ended up sitting on his arse looking pissed-off. Baton Boy stepped away, hands raised; dark red blood streamed down his lips, chin and clothes from his ruined nose; he eyed Mr Shotgun with daggers.

Carlos pushed himself up on his knees and squinting in the bright light and pain, regarded his potential saviour. The lump from the CRC trading table.

The lump didn’t look too pleased to be getting involved and regarded Carlos like he was something very unpleasant.

“You,” Mr Shotgun said to Carlos, “Consider yourself lucky. Your kind is not welcome here. Take yourself and fuck off.”

Carlos pulled his best shit-eating grin, tentatively touched his face. “I have a hotel booking. You can escort me there and if I’m lying you can bloody shoot me.”

 

 

 

 

The main access point to Aigues-Mortes was the Porte de la Gardette, and suitably named, Carlos ruminated as he stood beneath the guards lookout window set above the gate. Although the main curtain wall was about eleven metres high, the guard tower in front of him must have been at least another six metres higher. The entrance was flanked by two enormous curving towers, possibly ten metres or more in diameter. The whole structure was physically imposing and generated an immediate sense of impregnability and security. As did the two surly sentries giving him a hard time about his appearance and the scuffle that had taken place. Mr Shotgun was there, a couple of paces to the side, watching with a face like he was chewing on a dog turd; reason: Carlos’ claim to have a hotel booking had been proven true.

The sentries were still in mild disbelief; apparently the hotel was one of the best in Aigues-Mortes. Everyone that walked past during his lecture made a visible reaction to the eye-watering smell coming off him; several people nearly walked into the solid stone walls whilst trying to step away from the stench.

Carlos took it all in his stride and went on the charm offensive; which was his talent when it involved getting things he wanted. The sentries were curious about the hotel booking; who had made it for him? Who was he? Where had he come from? How had he got this far on foot? To all of these questions Carlos gave them a polite “None of your business.”

They wanted to know if he had enough money to cope with Aigues-Mortes and not become a nuisance. Carlos dug into the leather pouch strapped to his belt, picking through the remains of the glasses broken in the fight, and showed them his cash card. Pressing his thumb on the biometric reader allowed him to display the card’s balance.

10,000 credits was a lot of cash even for a place like Aigues-Mortes. Then they tried the bribery angle. Carlos asked them how the Captain of the Watch would react to such attempts of extortion. They shut-up then and finished off by scanning him.

That surprised him. The sentries were equipped with high-quality wands. They asked him about the wetware wired inside his skull: he told them the truth, a chunk of data-storage connected to a synaptic-bridge. They asked him about the insertion-port below his ribcage. He lied, told them it was for insulin to treat his diabetes; in reality it was for reloading his gland-implant.

Then they checked for staph and other skin infections; they pointed out his tangled hair was full of lice; they didn’t take his blood; they didn’t take anything that could have his DNA.

Finally, they handed back his day sack. A sentry was pulled off guard duty by his superior and told to escort Carlos to the hotel.


 

 

 

 

4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The low-slung convertible coupe slid through Manhattan streets. It was not long past midnight. Mikhail Drobná eye-balled some young dumb punks guffawing at his status symbol; they quickly looked away. The girl beside him was silent. The neon glow of the holos washed the nocturnal city grid in shifting colours. The holos never switched off; bars, late-night diners, lap-lounges and sim-stim holes; the holos spattered the streets with translucent virtual people: party crowds, semi-naked dancers and surreal combat figures from the latest sim-stim games coming down from the developer hives in orbit and deep space. At least they were silent; until you stepped into their audio zone. That could fucking wake you up at three in the morning with a skinful of booze; stumbling through one of those.

The ads for stims with zeds were the worst, Drobná considered. Anybody who played those stims had definitely never been to a Dead City or stepped further than a few metres beyond the Boundary. He wondered how many CRC Roamers had crapped their pants on first glimpse of a zed rezzing into reality and stepping into view a few metres away.

Drobná pulled a grim smile and turned his head to look at his passenger.

The girl had her eyes glued to the sidewalk, catching the gaze of anybody who looked. A lot of people looked: he was driving a fucking nice ride. An Ichirou X3i, shipped in from New Tokyo, glossy black paint job with gold chrome trim and a HTMD control console radiating light like a bunch of Christmas baubles around his massive hands. The girl was certainly a different human being to the sweaty slut he’d picked up a few hours earlier; she had transformed.

Her name was Charleez. Getting fucked in the ass by Mr d’Cota had given her a confidence boost, it seemed. Mr d’Cota was a cruel and dirty critter but he could be a gentleman when it suited him, and treat woman like ladies. Even whores like Charleez. She had taken to d’Cota like a kitten to cream.

He liked having her in the car with him. She turned heads. The car turned heads. It was moments like this he could fool the world he was normal: even if he did look like a thug in a car too good for him, riding with a whore.

The air was warm with the left over heat from the day radiating off the big buildings. The breeze blowing over the windshield smelled of burnt sugar, like it always did at night during the warm months: he could never work that one out.

Drobná followed the road with his eyes. There was shit-all traffic this late, but that only meant it was more likely for some fuckhead to stumble out in front of him trying to use the road for a sidewalk.

A soft tone from his ear-clip signalled an incoming message. A similar alert flashed across the windshield, ghostly aquamarine characters spilled across, followed by a number of holographic icons for response options:

:::CONRAD_hub_XXB::: 6O

Below this was a link to a secure audio service.

Conrad was one of the fixers who funnelled ad-hoc work his way.

His PA, a titanium cased Gauss-Zek, was stuffed into the trouser pocket of his hand-stitched suit; he could have still taken the call via his ear-clip but the girl would hear his side of the conversation. What was the point of a secure audio service if you were going to sit within ear-shot of somebody who’d probably sell your most precious secrets to the black market?

Drobná reached over the control paddle, his palm glancing off one rounded surface of tangible light: it felt like trying to push two magnets together. He tapped the icon on the windshield notifying Conrad he would enter the conversation later.

Charleez glanced his way as he sat back into the Kevlar sports seat but said nothing: she was in magic land. Mr d’Cota liked his girls on a cocktail of euphorics and amphetamines; apart from the sexual consequences, it was a way to keep them loyal later down the road if the “relationship” became prolonged.

He swung the aggressive nose of the convertible around a corner, leaving Broadway for Broome Street. A lot of very nice apartment buildings. The immediate absence of holos; the colour wash was replaced by regular street lighting. Most of the ground floors were swanky cafes, boutiques and restaurants: all closed this time of night. No scavenger stores or CRC depots here. The X3i cruised along; no harsh acceleration; no ripple of rubber tyres, just high-performance compressive spindles clicking on battered tarmac. Even before Yellow Dawn the roads in this city were always fucked.

He cut across the Avenue of the Americas, then across Varick before turning North on Hudson Street, heading towards Spring and noted the rapid change in the quality of the buildings and the type of people on the sidewalks. Hudson River was one big natural Boundary. People didn’t like to live close to any Boundary; overlooking the Dead Zone reminded them on a daily basis of what had been lost. In this case the eroded and scavenged ruins of New Jersey. Sure, Drobná figured anybody would get used to it, living in sight of so many miles of ruins; he knew for a fact that ninety-nine percent of the population living in Manhattan who didn’t have to look at that every day had lulled themselves into pretending life was okay. But everybody had lost ‘somebody’ during Yellow Dawn.

At that moment, Drobná sent out a silent wish to the God-that-never-listened that his scumbag of a father was one of those who had perished.

The general hubbub of noise from the streets filtered into his awareness. Either side there were cheap bars with a mix of punters outside smoking phet-pipes and gongs, or holding drinks in reclaimed ceramic or metal mugs; clusters of garden furniture and battered leather sofas and armchairs hugged the stretches of sidewalk around each venue.

Drobná clocked the various social tribes: Boomba Cuds, Zorm Boys, Dead Gurlz; CRC Roamers sitting on top of empty flat beds parked outside, catching up with R&R before the next scavenge tour; off-duty cops in uniform; local troops winding down after watch-duty, away from the Dead Zone boundary with various parts of riot-gear hanging open from their armour sub-frame.

Joe Public was absent. Asleep. Dreaming of day jobs and a life that hadn’t really changed since Yellow Dawn ripped the rest of the world into paper shreds. Start again girls and boys; not here though, eh?

Once again, for the umpteenth time today, Drobná hurled his imagination beyond the Boundary and the Dead Zone, beyond the rural support zones with their ‘idyllic’ lifestyle, into the heart of the new wilderness. That’s where he should be, he decided. Not here.

The thought caused him to absently rub a finger across one bumpy ridge of scar tissue around his left eye.

The girl seemed to register where she was and realised the ride was nearly over.

“So…how tall are you?” she asked abruptly.

Drobná didn’t answer for a few moments; considering what the angle she might be dreaming up. He replied, “Six foot eight.”

Charleez whistled through recently glossed lips, studied the many figures crowding the sidewalk; then she turned her head and looked right at him. There was a barely concealed flutter of her eyelids, a degree of features cushioned by curtains of freshly showered hair that he’d seen used by woman many times, her chin tucked into her exposed shoulder. He suffered a momentary flashback to earlier, his fingers inside of her.

“So what happened to your face?”

Not many people had the spunk to ask so bluntly.

“I cut myself shaving,” was all he said.

“Uh-huh,” she picked up on his tone; “Five times? And what did you use? Bolt-cutters?”

He didn’t respond. This wasn’t conversation time. This was drive and keep-the-fuck-quiet time. He didn’t need bitches like this reminding him about how he looked. He knew how he looked.

Rough skin, swarthy complexion almost grey in colour, except where the left side of his face was criss-crossed by the hard bright pink ridges of five intersecting scars. The scars formed two clusters that distorted the left side of his face. Two scars made the first cluster; one rose up from below his cheek bone, curving up past his left eye to intersect with another, shorter gouge that arced up from behind his left ear and cut across his brow, pulling that side of his face into a frown.

Three scars made up the second cluster. They radiated outwards from around the left side of his mouth, tangling his lower and upper lips with the ugly hard tissue, and pulling down the skin below his left eye, exposing the lower eyeball.

When he got messed-up on whisky he could spend a night staring at his reflection, laughing, tormenting, crying…

Not pussy-crying but fucking man-howling, teeth-clenched, lips curled back, with sounds coming from the deepest pit of his throat. More than once he’d woken up from such whisky sessions on the floor, surrounded by chunks of broken mirror and bloody fists.

 

 

 

The nav-comp’s position marker on the windshield switched from amber to green: they’d reached their destination. Drobná pulled over outside a shabby red brick building, with metal graffiti daubed shutters covering the windows of the first three floors. A few lights on higher up, years of grime clinging to glass that had never seen anybody bother to clean them. He could smell the river, only fifty metres away: his heart rate surged involuntarily. He hated being this close to the Boundary. He hated what lurked beyond the river. Impossible things, madness made real. He placed his massive hands on his thighs and squeezed, breathing slow and deep.

There was a brief flurry of activity from the shadows below the entrance steps. A bunch of junkies jolted out of their daze by the prospect of an easy robbery: cars like his wouldn’t normally be in this area. He gave them a long stare until they sullenly settled down again.

Charleez wasn’t moving. She was gazing out through the windshield, caught up in a swirl of magic land possibilities. Drobná leaned across her breasts and opened the door on her side.

“So what happens next?” she asked, and he heard her trying not to sound so desperate.

“If he liked you I’ll be calling again.”

Drobná knew that if Mr d’Cota really liked her she’d end up living in one of his apartments for a few weeks, maybe months, until he got bored with her. He’d seen a dozen of them, brought out of the tough streets into the luxury of it all and then tossed back.

For a brief moment he visualised his current boss between the legs of the girl. It wasn’t a pretty image.

D’Cota was a white guy in his late forties, tanned and well-pampered: he always smelled of aftershave and cigars. A small round head on a thick neck above broad sloping shoulders. He had a squat, powerful figure, muscle on the verge of turning to fat. D’Cota had almost no hair on his eyebrows, more like bony ridges above dark narrow eyes. There was nothing friendly in that face, d’Cota looked like a marine ready for the next fire-fight, always at attention, always on guard and alert.

Drobná pushed the image from his mind and focussed on the girl.

He didn’t need to drive them back home, they could get a taxi; but he liked to make sure they were okay. Was that a strange thing to do?

She lifted her legs and stepped out; high heels clicking on the road surface. He extended his hand towards her and offered a cash-card.

“What’s this, an advance on next time?” she sounded hopeful.

He shook his head, “It’s a bit of charity, in case there isn’t a next time.”

Her glossy smile faded; she snatched the card, thumbed it and checked the amount. Her eyebrows rose up, genuine surprise.

“This from you?” she asked.

Drobná didn’t really answer; he just looked at her for a moment, and then gestured for her to close the door. She gave it a gentle slam.

“I’ll wait ‘til you get inside,” he told her.

She nodded, gazing at him with a look that said she didn’t really get him. Then she was across the road and up the steps, high-heels tapping out the rhythm of her ass-wiggling stride.

The junkies got twitchy then relaxed.

He’d had the X3i fitted with manual control pedals for his feet; a bit of retro nostalgia. The road was empty of vehicles. Nothing parked or moving in either direction. He ‘floored it’. The compressive spindles leapt into action with a clickety-click-click that blurred into a gentle pitter-patter as the speed increased, rapidly becoming nothing more than a purr; the surge of acceleration pressing him deep into the Kevlar seat.

He turned right onto West Street without stopping and opened the throttle up; the engine roared and topped 100 MPH within four seconds. On his left side, glaring through his peripheral vision, a solid wall of darkness followed his route. Squatter camps lit up the piers with night fires and beyond those was the Hudson. Its dark oily waters the only thing giving Manhattan its Living status.

The corner of West 23rd loomed up fast as he braked hard and yanked the control paddle rough to the right. He slowed his speed, knowing the cops could turn a blind eye near the Boundary but deeper into the city they tended to be the same assholes they always had been.

He pulled-over fifty metres from the angled junction Broadway, spindles clicking as the X3i mounted the edge of the sidewalk. The street was quiet. The brightly coloured wash of holos lit up the distant view. Drobná stabbed a console button and the nanomech roof rapidly reassembled itself above and around him. The interior of the vehicle became as silent as a tomb.

He used the touch-cons on the windshield to access the messages on his PA, and sent a status query to the fixer who’d tried contacting him. The response was immediate, green light.

Drobná activated the secure audio link.

A solitary dial-tone, then a male voice, slightly modulated by whatever encryption service was running on the server; enough to prevent a voice-print being taken.

“Enjoying the warm evening Mikhail?”

“What have you got?” Drobná didn’t do small talk.

The fixer gave him a brief summary of a situation that needed some attention: a businessman who didn’t like what his business partner was doing. Drobná asked a few questions without getting any specific details about the client.

“I’m interested. I don’t do flat fees, you know that right?”

“Yeah, I’ve already talked it over with the client, told him you were the best man for the job but that you had certain terms. He’s cool with the arrangement.” The fixer sounded confident.

“Half a percent of pre-tax profits, for life.”

“Yup.”

“What’s your take?” Drobná asked.

“I reckon the details are worth five big ones, up front.”

“Must be some business,” Drobná challenged.

“Small, but very profitable.”

Drobná went silent for a moment to give it some thought. He knew it was Manhattan. He knew he could do it tonight.

Using the touch-cons on the windshield, he dragged a set of HTMD controls onto the console that sat over his lap; the translucent glyph and alphanumeric keyboard that appeared there glowed against the darkness of the foot well, and bathed his hands in coloured light. He set up a link to one of his orbital bank accounts, downloaded some funds and then sent them to the fixer’s payment portal.

“Got it,” the fixer registered the receipt, “Sending details through now.”

An encrypted data-pack arrived through the secure link. Drobná used a finger on the HTMD controls to drag the data-pack into his toolkit. It checked for viruses and spyware then ran a decryption app.

A name and address appeared on the HTMD console, a photo and some other details were sitting in summary-format below.

“All good. Thanks.” Drobná said as a sign-off then cut the call.

He checked the other details; made the photo stick in his memory. He dragged the HTMD controls away; they vanished in a blink of light. Leaving the roof in place he gunned the engine and pulled away towards Broadway.

It was a short drive.

The address was on the East side. A string of low rent stores with tenements cramming the floors above.

He parked the X3i around the first corner. Slipped on a pair of latex surgical gloves from the bag of them he carried inside his jacket pocket. Getting out the car he realised he was sweating. His stomach complained about lack of food.

Going to the front entrance he buzzed several apartments repeatedly. There was a jabber of voices through the intercom. One person hit the door-release. Drobná stepped inside.

He used the staircase, moving quickly but not rushing.

Reaching the door of the apartment he saw the lock was electronic. There was a camera blister above the door but the casing was all scratched to fuck and it looked as useful as a handful of grit in your eye. He pressed his ear to the door and heard the sound of voices and melodramatic music. Television. He bunched his fist and gave the door a couple of heavy thuds.

Sound of a chain being slid into place. Several locks snapped open at once. The door squeezed open a couple of centimetres. A middle-aged black face in the gap, too much flesh, sweating and reeking of some kind of spice.

“Yeah? Who the fuck are you?” The way he said ‘fuck’ made it sound like it was with an ‘o’ and not a ‘u’.

Drobná drove both hands into the door sending it slamming into the guy’s head, ripping the chain away like it was made of foil. The guy yelled in shock and pain, tried to grab the door to push it back but Drobná was already through, inside the guy’s stinking apartment. He grabbed the guy by his face and threw him into the wall. The plaster cracked. The guy moaned and went limp. Drobná wasn’t buying it. He grabbed the guy by the back of his neck and span him round, pulled him close, pressed a meaty fist against his fat fucking face.

“You’re stealing from your business partner. He wants you to leave, today. I’m going to give you five minutes to pack what you want and then I’m going to take you to the city limits. Got it?”

The guy’s head lolled back, eyes-staring wide, shocked into a daze. Drobná slapped him with an open-palm.

“Fucking got it?”

“City…city limits?”

“Yeah.”

“But-”

“No fucking buts. No sobbing. No second chance. You’re out of this city.”

“But-”

“I know the men who run the flamethrowers. I’m going to show them your face. If you try and sneak back into the city: I’ve paid them to burn you.”

He was shaking his head violently from side to side; his brain was already taking him to the Boundary, showing him television documentaries of the Dead Zone.

“I can’t… I’ll die. Those THINGS will get me!”

Drobná grabbed his whole face with one hand and slammed him backwards into the wall. The plaster cracked some more. “Die here, die out there, it’s your choice. At least out there you’ve got a chance. Four minutes.”

 

 

 

END OF EXCERPT

cover for Dog Eat Dog, new fiction for SSF with zombies written by David J Rodger

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