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When Gravity Fails
By George Alec Effinger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1987 George Alec Effinger
All rights reserved.
Chiriga's nightclub was right in the middle of the Budayeen, eight blocks from the eastern gate, eight blocks from the cemetery. It was handy to have the graveyard so close-at-hand. The Budayeen was a dangerous place and everyone knew it. That's why there was a wall around three sides. Travelers were warned away from the Budayeen, but they came anyway. They'd heard about it all their lives, and they'd be damned if they were going home without seeing it for themselves. Most of them came in the eastern gate and started up the Street curiously; they'd begin to get a little edgy after two or three blocks, and they'd find a place to sit and have a drink or eat a pill or two. After that, they'd hurry back the way they'd come and count themselves lucky to get back to the hotel. A few weren't so lucky, and stayed behind in the cemetery. Like I said, it was a very conveniently situated cemetery, and it saved a lot of time and trouble all around.
I stepped into Chiri's place, glad to get out of the hot, sticky night. At the table nearest the door were two women, middle-aged tourists, with shopping bags filled with souvenirs and presents for the folks back home. One had a camera and was taking hologram snapshots of the people in the nightclub. The regulars usually don't take kindly to that, but they were ignoring these tourists. A man couldn't have taken those pictures without paying for it. Everyone was ignoring the two women except a tall, very thin man wearing a dark European suit and tie. It was as outrageous a costume as I'd seen that night. I wondered what his routine was, so I waited at the bar a moment, eavesdropping.
"My name is Bond," said the guy. "James Bond." As if there could be any doubt.
The two women looked frightened. "Oh, my God," one of them whispered.
My turn. I walked up behind the moddy and grabbed one of his wrists. I slipped my thumb over his thumbnail and forced it down and into his palm. He cried out in pain. "Come along, Double-oh-seven, old man." I murmured in his ear, "let's peddle it somewhere else." I escorted him to the door and gave him a hefty shove out into the muggy, rain-scented darkness.
The two women looked at me as if I were the Messiah returning with their personal salvations sealed in separate envelopes. "Thank you," said the one with the camera. She was speaking French. "I don't know what else to say except thanks."
"It's nothing," I said. "I don't like to see these people with their plug-in personality modules bothering anybody but another moddy."
The second woman looked bewildered. "A moddy, young man?" Like they didn't have them wherever she came from.
"Yeah. He's wearing a James Bond module. Thinks he's James Bond. He'll be pulling that trick all night, until someone raps him down and pops the moddy out of his head. That's what he deserves. He may be wearing Allah-only-knows-what daddies, too." I saw the bewildered look again, so I went on. "Daddy is what we call an add-on. A daddy gives you temporary knowledge. Say you chip in a Swedish-language daddy; then you understand Swedish until you pop it out. Shopkeepers, lawyers, and other con men all use daddies."
The two women blinked at me, as if they were still deciding if all that could be true.
"Plugging right into the brain?" said the second woman. "That's horrifying."
"Where are you from?" I asked.
They glanced at each other. "The People's Republic of Lorraine," said the first woman.
That confirmed it: they probably had never seen a moddy-driven fool before. "If you ladies wouldn't mind a piece of advice," I said, "I really think you're in the wrong neighborhood.
You're definitely in the wrong bar."
"Thank you, sir," said the second woman. They fluttered and squawked, scooping up their packages and bags, leaving behind their unfinished drinks, and hurried out the door. I hope they got out of the Budayeen all right.
Chiri was working behind the bar alone that night. I liked her; we'd been friends a long time. She was a tall, formidable woman, her black skin tattooed in the geometric designs of raised scars worn by her distant ancestors. When she smiled—which she didn't do very often—her teeth flashed disturbingly white, disturbing because she'd had her canines filed to sharp points. Traditional among cannibals, you know. When a stranger came into the club, her eyes were shrewd and black, as empty of interest as two bullet holes in the wall. When she saw me, though, she shot me that wide welcoming grin. "Jambo!" she cried. I leaned across the narrow bar and gave her a quick kiss on her patterned cheek.
"What's going on, Chiri?" I said.
"Njema," she said in Swahili, just being polite. She shook her head. "Nothing, nothing, same goddamn boring job."
I nodded. Not much changes on the Street; only the faces. In the club were twelve customers and six girls. I knew four of the girls, the other two were new. They might stay on the Street for years, like Chiri, or they might run. "Who's she?" I said, nodding at the new girl on stage.
"She wants to be called Pualani. You like that? Means 'Heavenly Flower,' she says. Don't know where she's from. She's a real girl."
I raised my eyebrows. "So you'll have someone to talk to now," I said.
Chiri gave me her most dubious expression. "Oh, yeah," she said. "You try talking to her for a while. You'll see."
"You'll see. You won't be able to avoid it. So, did you come in here to waste my time, or are you buying anything?"
I looked at the digital clock blinking on the cash register behind the bar. "I'm meeting somebody in about half an hour."
It was Chiri's turn to raise her eyebrows. "Oh, business? We're working again, are we?"
"Hell, Chiri, this is the second job this month."
"Then buy something."
I try to stay away from drugs when I know I'm going to meet a client, so I got my usual, a shot of gin and a shot of bingara over ice with a little Rose's lime juice. I stayed at the bar, even though the client was coming, because if I sat at a table the two new girls would try to hustle. Even if Chiri warned them off, they'd still try. There was time enough to take a table when this Mr. Bogatyrev showed up.
I sipped my drink and watched the girl onstage. She was pretty, but they were all pretty; it went with the job. Her body was perfect, small and lithe and so sweet that you almost ached to run your hand down that flawless skin, glistening now with sweat. You ached, but that was the point. That's why the girls were there, that's why you were there, that's why Chiri and her cash register were there. You bought the girls drinks and you stared at their perfect bodies and you pretended that they liked you. And they pretended that they liked you, too. When you stopped spending money, they got up and pretended that they liked someone else.
I couldn't remember what Chiri had said this girl's name was. She'd obviously had a lot of work done: her cheekbones had been emphasized with silicone, her nose straightened and made smaller, her square jaw shaved down to a cute rounded point, oversized breast implants, silicone to round out her ass ... they all left telltale signs. None of the customers would notice, but I'd seen a lot of women on a lot of stages in the last ten years. They all look the same.
Chiri came back from serving customers farther down the bar. We looked at each other. "She spill any money for brain-work?" I asked.
"She's just amped for daddies, I think," said Chiri. "That's all."
"She's spent so much on that body, you'd think she'd go the whole way."
"She's younger than she looks, honey. You come back in six months, she'll have her moddy plug, too. Give her time, and she'll show you the personality you like best, hardcore slut or tragic soiled dove, or anything in-between."
Chiri was right. It was just a novelty to see someone working in that nightclub using her own brain. I wondered if this new girl would have the stamina to keep working, or if the job would send her back where she came from, content with her perfectly modified body and her partially modified mind. A moddy and daddy bar was a tough place to make money. You could have the most dazzling body in the world, but if the customers were wired too, and paying more attention to their own intracranial entertainment, you might as well be home yourself, chipping in.
A cool, imperturbably voice spoke in my ear. "You are Marîd Audran?"
I turned slowly and looked at the man. I supposed this was Bogatyrev. He was a small man, balding, wearing a hearing aid—this man had no modifications at all. No visible ones, anyway. That didn't mean that he wasn't loaded with a module and add-ons I couldn't see. I've run into a few people like that over the years. They're the dangerous ones. "Yes," I said. "Mr. Bogatyrev?"
"I am glad to make your acquaintance."
"Likewise," I said. "You're going to have to buy a drink or this barmaid will start heating up her big iron cooking pot." Chiri gave us that cannibal leer.
"I'm sorry," said Bogatyrev, "but I do not consume alcohol."
"It's all right," I said, turning to Chiri. "Give him one of these." I held up my drink.
"But—" objected Bogatyrev.
"It's all right," I said. "It's on me, I'll pay for it. It's only fair—I'm going to drink it, too."
Bogatyrev nodded: no expression. Inscrutable, you know? The Orientals are supposed to have a monopoly on that, but these guys from Reconstructed Russia aren't bad, either. They practice at it. Chiri made the drink and I paid her. Then I steered the little man to a table in the back. Bogatyrev never glanced left or right, never gave the almost-naked women a moment of his attention. I've known men like that, too.
Chiri liked to keep her club dark. The girls tended to look better in the dark. Less voracious, less predatory. The soft shadows tended to clothe them with mystery. Anyway, that's what a tourist might think. Chiri was just keeping the lights off whatever private transactions might be occurring in the booths and at the tables. The bright lights on the stage barely penetrated the gloom. You could see the faces of the customers at the bar, staring, dreaming, or hallucinating. Everything else in the club was in darkness and indistinct. I liked it that way.
I finished my first drink and slid the glass to the side. I wrapped my hand around the second one. "What can I do for you, Mr. Bogatyrev?"
"Why did you ask me to meet you here?"
I shrugged. "I don't have an office this month," I said. "These people are my friends. I look out for them, they look out for me. It's a community effort."
"You feel you need their protection?" He was sizing me up, and I could tell that I hadn't won him over yet. Not all the way. He was intensely polite about it the whole time. They practice that, too.
"No, it isn't that."
"Do you not have a weapon?"
I smiled. "I don't carry a weapon, Mr. Bogatyrev. Not usually. I've never been in a situation where I needed one. Either the other guy has one, and I do what he says, or he doesn't, and I make him do what I say."
"But surely if you had a weapon and showed it first, it would avoid unnecessary risk."
"And save valuable time. But I have plenty of time, Mr. Bogatyrev, and it's my hide I'm risking. We all have to get our adrenaline flowing somehow. Besides, here in the Budayeen we work on kind of an honor system. They know I don't have a weapon, I know they don't. Anybody who breaks the rules gets broken right back. We're like one big, happy family." I didn't know how much of this Bogatyrev was buying, and it wasn't really important. I was just pushing a little, trying to get a sense of the man's temper.
His expression turned just a tiny bit sour. I could tell that he was thinking about forgetting the whole thing. There are lots of private strongarms listed in the commcodes. Big, strong types with lots of weapons to reassure people like Bogatyrev. Agents with shiny bright seizure guns under their jackets, with lush, comfortable suites in more attractive neighborhoods, with secretaries and computer terminals hooked into every data base in the known world and framed pictures of themselves shaking hands with people you feel you ought to recognize. That wasn't me. Sorry.
I saved Bogatyrev the trouble of asking. "You're wondering why Lieutenant Okking recommended me, instead of one of the corporations in the city."
Not a flicker out of Bogatyrev. "Yes," he said.
"Lieutenant Okking's part of the family," I said. "He tosses business my way, I toss business his way. Look, if you went to one of those chrome-plated agents, he'd do what you need done; but it would cost you five times more than my fee; it would take longer, I can guarantee you that; and the high-velocity guys have a tendency to thunder around with their expensive equipment and those attention-getting weapons. I do the job with less noise. Less likely that your interests, whatever they are, will end up decorated with laser burns themselves."
"I see. Now that you have brought up the subject of payment, may I ask your fee?"
"That depends on what you want done. There are certain kinds of work I don't do. Call it a quirk. If I don't want to take the job, though, I can refer you to someone good who will.
Why don't you just start at the beginning?"
"I want you to find my son."
I waited, but Bogatyrev didn't seem to have anything further to say. "Okay," I said.
"You will want a picture of him." A statement.
"Of course. And all the information you can give me: how long he's been missing, when you last saw him, what was said, whether you think he ran away or was coerced. This is a big city, Mr. Bogatyrev, and it's very easy to dig in and hide if you want to. I have to know where to start looking."
"You want to haggle?" I was beginning to get annoyed. I've always had trouble with these New Russians. I was born in the year 1550—that would be 2172 in the calendar of the infidel. About thirty or forty years before my birth, Communism and Democracy died in their sleep from exhausted resources and rampant famine and poverty. The Soviet Union and the United States of America fractured into dozens of small monarchies and police states. All the other nations of the world soon followed suit. Moravia was an independent country now, and Tuscany, and the Commonwealth of the Western Reserve: all separate and terrified. I didn't know which Reconstructed Russian state Bogatyrev came from. It probably didn't make much difference.
He stared at me until I realized he wasn't going to say anything more until I quoted a price. "I get a thousand kiam a day and expenses," I said. "Pay me now for three days in advance. I'll give you an itemized bill after I find your son, inshallah." If Allah wills, that is. I had named a figure ten times my usual fee. I expected him to haggle me down.
"That is entirely satisfactory." He opened a molded plastic briefcase and took out a small packet. "There are holotapes here, and a complete dossier on my son, all his interests, his vices, his aptitudes, his entire psychological profile, all that you will need."
I squinted at him across the table. It was odd that he should have that package for me. The Russian's tapes were natural enough; what struck me as fishy was the rest of it, the psych profile. Unless Bogatyrev was obsessively methodical—and paranoid to boot—I didn't see why he'd have that material prepared for me. Then I had a hunch. "How long has your son been missing?" I asked.
"Three years." I blinked; I wasn't supposed to wonder why he'd waited so long. He'd probably already been to the city jobbers and they hadn't been able to help him.
I took the package from him. "Three years makes a trail go kind of cool, Mr. Bogatyrev," I said.
"I would greatly appreciate it if you would give your full attention to the matter," he said. "I am aware of the difficulties, and I am willing to pay your fee until you succeed or decide that there is no hope of success."
I smiled. "There's always hope, Mr. Bogatyrev."
Excerpted from When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger. Copyright © 1987 George Alec Effinger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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