Read an Excerpt
The final Beerlight novel
By Steve Aylett
Serif BooksCopyright © 2015 Steve Aylett
All rights reserved.
I'd just flicked a spider off the desk, sighed and prepared to rise when the shadow of someone's head and shoulders appeared on the floor like the edge of a jigsaw piece. A galoot entered. His vibe was blank - I could see aura waste falling away from him like dead seeds. He even went with 'Prepare to die, Mister Atom.'
'Right this minute?' I asked, dubiously. 'It's not particularly convenient.'
His smile was incoherent, a dent in a sandbag. Maybe this was his favourite thing to do.
'Being bored by you better be worth it,' I told him. Probably my face bore the sort of amused and scornful look that people never like.
'You don't get to meet the Heber kid,' he said, then drew a sender like a riveted slab of tar. It was actually a Birch gun, the muzzle shored about with functionless flanges and baffles. He started firing the kind of bullets I preferred to see going the other way. Spent shells were flying like air quotes as I pulled the emergency cord and descended, the floor closing again above me. I'll open the ground when I choose.
I was surprised though. It had been ten years and I'd almost forgotten that stories still happened here, as if this world hadn't ended.
I'd known the town was finished when I put a phone to my ear and found it was a cockroach. I used to think rain sounded the same everywhere, falling on dead and undead. Before I got away and heard it on palms, reef ocean and blue air. And I should have stayed on the island. Now only a few hours back in town and I felt again it didn't matter where I was.
The one thing I hadn't considered was the risk of getting curious.
By the time I slanted the Mantarosa out of the parking lot the gun ape was ducking into a car consisting mainly of ribbed armour and roller bars. He headed portside and I followed with deadlights and a nightvision windshield. On the way out of Saints Street I sent the cleanup signal, at which my office jumped and settled into the ground, leaving only the sculpture of a construction site which a friend had fashioned on the roof. I'd miss the old place maybe.
Suddenly I was feeling cheerful. Neon was arcing down my spine and the scenery was springing out of my way. In a car like a straight razor, my rearview reflection backed by a pouring firewall that used to be my workplace. Trouble-bound under clenched heavens. Night windows like aquariums as I followed the cage car through the beginnings of rain toward the dead waterfront, centre of fish nostalgia and water canneries. I saw blue sparks kindling between my teeth.
He parked by the harbour wall and walked down a wooden ramp to a small shack which half-hung out over the sea. I stopped a way back and sat a while listening to the motor pinging as it settled. Cars with portholes are cool.
Rain was pouring into the sea and slashing off the vinyl roof of the hut. Under moonlight the walls were leaking silver. I walked over and took a look in the window. A fly-strip encrusted with bullets and a glass-fronted box on the wall with a sign saying FOR BROKEN GLASS BREAK GLASS. A little flaking wreck of a table. The only thing on it was one of those plastic plants that dance to gunfire, looking creepy in the weird light. But three fellas were propped around the table like carved dolls in a murky tank of turpentine. The gunsel was one. Sat on either side were a bucket-jawed giant with club bones and a little compacted guy with a round head and side-impact ears. And I thought, What is it now?
The button man was getting a dressing-down so elaborately phrased he probably thought he'd done good. The little guy was precise and petulant. 'We asked you to put him around a bullet, understand? To shoot him. And it wouldn't be unusual for him to die thereafter. If you haven't tried that experiment before you'll find there is something almost uncanny about the result.'
'That old detective front probably had a zero approach alarm, Mr Ract,' said the giant thoughtfully. 'He knew something was up the moment our verb-free associate entered the place.'
'What did you use, show me. What's that, a Birchy? Loud charm but slow on the uptake - it damn near fires by osmosis. If it had to be an ammo-guzzler why not a Barisal? Doesn't anyone use room-brooms anymore? Give it the once-over?'
The galoot looked sad. 'I can't have a big frenzy just like that Mr Ract.'
'My god, that's exactly the sort of frenzy you've got to have, man! I think this hitman of yours is some sort of manatee, Mr Darkwards. He's certainly never been proven otherwise. And I haven't the patience for the gang talk.'
'It's how they get by,' said the giant calmly, nodding a head like a foundation stone. 'Mobster psychosis. It gives them a social structure, of sorts. Better than the wasteland outside, maybe.'
'Well we needn't really do it Beerlight style. Camouflage be damned, this is too important to leave to a - what do they call it here ... cleaner? Need I remind you if Atom and the boy meet it will be catastrophically interesting for me, you, and everyone in a five-hundred-mile radius.'
This gave me a bit of a start. I presented myself to this world as if by chance, the same as everyone else. Why such suspicion? I stood frowning in the smell of melted and rain-solidified rubber as the sad city went on losing its flavour like gum. Well, it didn't matter at this late stage. Something was leaping in me like old times.
Water murky as potion. A meeting of skulls behind a sizzling window. The gunsel hung back like a doughy robot, his eyes opaque and eager. I'd got a swatch on his aura. His mind was strange, thinking one thing at a time.
'He's getting near the city,' said the small man Ract, taking what looked like an elaborate jungle compass from a pocket and propping it on the table. 'According to the atomic clock. Where's our Mr Pivot? And has he selected an alternative conjecture or is he adamant?'
'The choreography of failure is infinitely varied,' drawled the giant.
'Does he understand the moral component of the exercise?'
'Is there one?'
'The hole where it should be is the right shape. It'll do.'
'Relax, Mr Ract. I'm told if you listen to one of his excuses while watching The Wizard of Oz it matches up in profound and hilarious ways. Anyway, since our willy-nilly friend here has failed by an order of magnitude we hadn't thought possible, we'll have to put Atom out of the game from another direction. Discrediting him with a bullet's all very well but -'
I ducked out and leopard-crawled unnecessarily back to the car, setting off through streets gummed with melted cellphones like cowchips.
Why was I rattling around Beerlight again? Its most precocious souls had escaped. Its colour had desaturated. It was mouthing old lines. Banal, undirected explosions were going off here and there. The city was crying out for the specific-rich carnage so beloved of the old-time accelerati. The days when crimes were written across the city like formulae, answering each other in a seemingly endless, dendritic conversation. But it would never see that inventiveness again, I thought.
I'll try to describe the beautiful ways I was wrong.CHAPTER 2
Buildings the colour of dried blood under a formaldehyde sky. The city and its sundered justifications moved by like a dream. Rain hammering the chassis. Here and there were crushed cars apparently sucked into the asphalt. What doesn't kill you leaves you exhausted.
I used the Mantarosa's denial-allow cloak for camouflage, detecting and projecting whatever onlookers were not willing to acknowledge - but these days people were disbelieving enough at the sight of a functioning vehicle. The propulsion system was spun by state-differential energy. It depended on geographical time zones, taking advantage of the nano-difference in time between the vehicle's hood and trunk. The contradictional friction was small but absolutely constant, even while the car was stationary - some houses had been powered the same way.
I parked up outside the Delayed Reaction Bar and sunk a pneumatic anchor spike to a depth of eight feet. The little gyroscopic context engine whirred to a stop and the Mantarosa clammed shut behind me as I made the sign of the Errorverse and entered the bar.
The atmosphere was one of lethal chemistry and vaporized intent. The ceiling was haemorrhaging; the floor magnifying submerged tiles like the poison scales of a dragon. It was raining in my kidneys. The walls were dark brown like burnt sugar and on one hung a pug clock giving only the vaguest suggestion of time. When I drew near to anyone I could hear the muted death of braincells like popping candy.
The barman Don Toto was a bald fellow with all the usual eyes and noses assigned where they might do the least harm. But Toto was smart, a researcher. He had discovered a crime between assault and grievous injury and taken out a copyright. Today most of his body was taped over with bandages. He could barely walk and perhaps didn't want to.
He was playing the bar like a keyboard.
'Antifreeze, with everything.'
'Taffy Atom, my hypergora friend. You look like a million dollars that rightfully belong to someone else.'
'No. You look like a wishbone in a coat.'
'Thanks, Toto. You fill a bastard-shaped hole in my life. I see your clientele are still those whose philosophy arrives by chute and leaves by trashcan.'
Behind me I heard the strop of a gun being unsheathed and Toto perked up: 'Ignore him, gentlemen, his heart has a rat's tail, it's horrible. His body makes powerful appeals to the earthworm and other crawlites, with no help from you.'
I looked cautiously behind me to see the offended drinker give it the thousand yard sneer and sheath his flaw. He returned to reading Modern Hernia magazine.
Toto leaned and spoke more quietly. 'Where you been the last ten years, Atom?'
'A part of the world you can still see the face of the planet, Toto.'
'Whatcha been up to?'
'Evolving. It's the latest thing - and always is. What's been happening over here?'
He told me. Kids were using old memory sticks for ammo. For a while there was a fashion for specially-made throwing stars in the shape of letters. The name of Allah was favoured by beginners, having the compensatory four blades of a good razor. Sanskrit was intermediary and Kabalic figures were blunt enough to demand the strength and skill of a master, some favouring whole word symbols such as Yud Yud Lamed (Letting Go). Betty had been the mob since Cortez the Killer went mad and ate his own ass. His death and illegal conversion to rotten meat had been the talk of the town. All Cortez's boys went over to Betty. 'Her fort's charm central. Waited long enough.'
'Betty's steady. Repair this drink, it's broken.' Toto repaired the freeze. 'Your answers are partly obscured by bandages, I notice. Brotherhood again?'
'Galoot,' Toto replied. 'Asked after you, strangely enough.'
'Fella with a doughy head and a show pistol?'
'Yeah, fronted-up. But he used the muscles of his upper body for the attack. It was a game of pure opposition. He broke my arm, and my other arm - and my other arm. That third arm might have been my leg.'
'Both arms and a leg.'
'And my other leg.'
'And my other leg.'
'Now I'm confused, Don Toto.'
'Not half as confused as I was. I told him where your old office was but I was sure you was still outta town.'
'No-one could know I was coming in.'
Don Toto began to speak about self-similarity in regard to time when regarded as a single item, but my mind was wandering, trying to correlate. Everything has been deemed illegal - so, which crime to select? Pick any point along an infinite series. None can be 'wrong'. Beerlight was like most cities in that fear was the master builder. For the average person there was no way to die here that was not dangerous, inconvenient, or both.
A fly was ticking against a tube light.
'My gun's missing, Toto.'
'Damn silly thing to say aloud.'
'It should have been behind my office.'
'You could hotwire a guzzler.'
'Nah. Parker still in business?'
The gunsmith and hitman Brute Parker was renowned for having such control over his ammo he could shoot people in a 'beguiling' way. Classically-trained in grudgecraft.
'More a religion with him now. Find him in the Square pretty often, at prayer. Keeps his gun in a cage and the key in a holster. The holster is strapped around the waist of an ape.'
'Let me guess. The ape is in the cage and he is the ape.'
'This describes us all, Atom.'
'Here's one you won't get - a paradox. "A" states that everything "B" says is a lie. "B" states that everything "A" says is true.'
'Easy. A and B are lying and mistaken, both and simultaneously. Happens all the time.'
'Okay,' he frowned, thinking, then brightened. 'How about this one. I want power in desperation, but when comfortable I am content with comfort. Who am I?' His look was calculating.
I realised I didn't know, and became brisk. 'What a one you are for questions, Toto. Well, I better go check in somewhere, the Socket maybe.'
'What about the slabhead who's been asking for you?'
'Unless you got any better ideas, which no-one expects, I'll consult the gap and see if there's any pattern.'
'They'll be cutting your clothes off before you're finished.'
I drove to the Eyesocket Hotel on Devant Street and took a room. On the bed was a brown beetle the size of a violin. I flipped a sheet over it and threw the whole sack out the window, laying down. 'i-beam. Give me an exploded view of this argument.' I repeated Toto's 'power in desperation' taunt and a wireframe hovered below the ceiling. The shape broke open and revolved, its elements re-assembling in a different shape - now the structure gave off a more electric flavour. 'The average citizen,' I concluded. Toto would have been gratified to know I'd resorted to tech to solve the puzzle. I'd have to think one up for him.
I switched to the gap. The gap factors in the peripheral vision around the edge of the net - on the principle that the real facts were sunk in the gaps and brackets of the equation, like the sparkle of light between leaves. The net had more holes since its collapse and slow rebuild. From these patterns of absence I inferred the extent of the city's onrush. It was pretty precise. The gestalt was an irregular cylinder dried open at both ends, with an entropic wind fluming through it. People clung to the inside walls like dead flies. I was amazed that any dynamic could be maintained here. Was it pure after-momentum or was it actively pushing toward something? Was any new energy being created in this husk? It looked totally played out. Science had changed the point at which a thing was declared dead, but that presupposed an outside observer who could call time. And I was getting involved. The truth is, I was so cheerful to be saying a final goodbye I got generous with my time - a gem of a mistake. I'd fallen through a hole in my head.
Get out, Atom. Look at the shape of the thing, it's a bonanza of emptiness. You owe it nothing.
There should be a procedure to formally quit a species.
I got up and stood at the window, which showed an edge of the O from the dead neon HOTEL on the front of the building. In the street below, a car lay smoking on its side. The crump of distant explosions became hypnotic. My pupils were poised to dilate but never got the chance - there was a landphone like a landcrab on the sidetable and this shrilled into life. It was Toto. 'You get the answer to that riddle yet?'
'Sure. Comfort's the one merit of material empires.'
'So where is it now, eh? End of empire. Cloudy remains found by robot submarine etc.'
'A casino under murky water, roulette wheel locked up with moss.'
'Beautiful. Anyway, why I called - there's an event node at the Stina Gate.'
'Promising? You searched the gap, right? And you don't get this? You're outta touch, Atom.'
I switched the receiver from my right hand to my left. 'Guess I am.' It was strange. Even factoring in several flip-flops of irony the info didn't interest me - it seemed to have as much content as a decoy duck. I was still detuned. People de-cypher others' statements in the assumption that they don't mean what they say. The statements of someone who does mean what he says will also be put through the de-cyphering process - in other words, it'll be scrambled and nothing he tries to communicate will ever get across. Such a person can't even give secrets away. I've come to like this - I depend on it. But it plays merry hell in a fresh neighbourhood. 'You sure about this?'
'Let me reply with a question of my own.'
As I put down the phone I gazed at the room safe. It was a single-use openless Chubb TriGuard with show relockers, anti-drilling plates, blast-resistant Trilite shielding and Chobham armour – known in the trade as a 'trickledown'. I opened the bedside table. Inside was a copy of Eddie Gamete's Haruspex Virus. It hit me with the punctual surprise of being shot. An early example of Zero Point Literature, this book was like a device built for stress-testing prejudice and because such beliefs will buckle under an instant's examination, the remaining excess torque would tend to rip the reader open. It was a rehearsal for The World Cup Ordination of Schottner Kier, a later book that laid down the architecture of a linear accelerator in the reader's mind. This device was activated by a signal concept at the end of the text.
Excerpted from Novahead by Steve Aylett. Copyright © 2015 Steve Aylett. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
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