by James Worrad
“Good evening,” said the man on Zama’s screen. His teeth were faultless and the lights of Zama’s neighbourhood shone behind him. “I’m Hamilton Yolb. Tonight I’m in Narba-strip central—a vibrant, thriving port-zone. But, all too often…all too lethal.”
Zama looked around his one room apartment. Well, he thought, I guess maybe I should have rinsed out that milk bottle. He chuckled, scratched a beefy forearm and lay back on his couch.
“Life can be cheap,” Yolb told the camera, “in this lagoon of vice and narcotics.”
“Please,” Zama said to his empty room and the man on the screen. “Like what are you on, anyway?” He thought about throwing a cigarette at the screen but he lit it instead. “Fuckin’ lagoon…”
Yolb continued. “It takes a certain breed of officer to police this zone. Vigilant men and women, ever ready to deliver justice, sometimes pain, wherever the drug peddler stalks.” On cue, a police skimmer lowered into the frame, its chassis sleek and menacing. Yolb’s coat began to ripple in the breeze of the skimmer’s stabilisers. “I’ll be on patrol with such officers. Join me. Live, tonight at 23.00 AMT. Who knows what’ll happen?” The camera closed in on Yolb’s face. “Certainly Justice.” An eyebrow rose. “And frequently pain.”
Cut to commercials — Chewzypopz, cheap flights off-world and the Phalliconda 9 handgun. Zama hit the silence button. That ass wipe Yolb got three billion viewers a show. Three billion. The meek, it seemed, yearned for bullies and easy stereotypes, found comfort in ugly places—power-armoured authority, poor folk handcuffed over skimmer bonnets. Zama would watch most any crap, but not Yolb Tonight, not ever. It was his protest, or near-as-damn.
Something hit the balcony window from above, bounced off and landed in a heap on the balcony floor. A man.
“Fuck!” Zama leapt to his feet.
What? A raid?
Zama skulked his way toward the balcony window. He couldn’t see anyone out there, just the flash of passing skimmers, the factories beyond them and the night above, scratched with the plas-trails of descending ships. He thought about picking up his old swim team trophy from the kitchenette to use as a weapon, but decided not to. Cops needed the slightest excuse.
The man lay face down on the balcony’s floor. If this were a raid, it was nothing like on Yolb Tonight.
Zama recognised him. “Moonman?”
Moonman got up and dusted his long coat down. He seemed all right, all things considered.
“Hey, Zam! Lemme in, big guy!”
Zama slid the window open. The hum of skimmer-traffic rose to a growl.
“Scared the hell outta me, Moonman! Who you think you are—GI Jackass?”
“It’s smoosh, man,” Moonman replied, his grin orbited by freckles and a ginger goatee. “Be smoosh. I had business in the crib above yours, you tune? Thought I’d save time. Time’s money, man.”
“Yeah? Can it buy me new underwear?” Zama shook his head. “Freak! Never do that again.”
“Fine, fine, I tune ya.” Moonman put on a plummy voice. “May I enter, kindly-gent-sir?”
“Huh…sure.” He stepped back to let Moonman through. “Been waiting for you to drop by.” He slid the window shut.
If this wasn’t Moonman’s strangest act yet then it was easily a contender. One mistake climbing down and Moonman would still be falling now. Clearly, the guy had reached that point all career druggies met sooner or later. Keep expanding your mind and friends will notice stretch marks.
Sad; Zama liked the ratty little bastard, he really did. But he wasn’t his dad.
“So what you got for me, Moon’?”
“Got it all, Baby!” he said. “Got Nems, got Fooze, got Pyrospazz. The streets are flowing right now, ask any head. Been a golden age since the fleet came in.”
“Damn it, Moonman.” Zama said. “Why you always pushing me that chemical shit? I’m a working man, for fucks sake.” He wiped ash off his top. “Just gimme some smoke. An ounce, or shit thereabout.”
“Use your kitchen top?” Moonman asked. “Need to weigh-up the pooka, you tune?”
Moonman loped toward the kitchenette. He wore the same long jacket Zama always saw him in. It had a holo-image on the back much like Moonman’s brain—malfunctioning, but never hot shit from the get-go. Once, the holo-image had been animated. Now it only jerked between two frames—a naked brunette and a naked brunette with a serpent wrapped around her. Zama felt bad for that girl, having to cover a freak like Moonman all her days.
Always this dance; Moonman emptying his pockets of sundry crap. Drugs, lucky talismans, torn cigarettes. His scales would be the last thing out of those pockets.
A square brown object fell on to the kitchen top.
“Ah, shit.” Moonman scrabbled the thing back into his pockets.
“What was that?” Zama asked. He stepped over to the kitchen.
“Nuttin’.” Moonman spoke quick and serious, like a security man.
“Bullshit, Moon’. C’mon, show me.”
Zama laughed and grabbed Moonman by his lapels.
“Getoff!” Moonman said.
Easy, wrestling a little guy like him. Zama had the object within a half-minute. Its texture felt rough, unique.
“Give that back, Zama!”
“Noted and logged.” Zama laughed and stepped away. He inspected the object.
“Shit…” Zama stopped laughing. “Shit, Moonman. Is this…wood?”
“Yeah. Yeah it is.”
“Man…” He turned the dark brown box in his hands. “Who’d you kill?”
Zama had only ever seen wood before, never touched it. Plenty of it must come to Narba strip port, he supposed, but it sure as hell didn’t stay long. The sort of thing assholes like Hamilton Yolb filled their sky-condos with.
The box’s surface was patterned—carved; was that the word? Zama couldn’t begin to understand what the…carver had intended. More than just patterns, definitely. From one angle, a part of the box’s surface suggested biped figures, from another, something entirely different—a landscape, maybe, or some animal. A third, and it’d be all three at once. The only constant was beauty.
“Who made this?”
“Not man, baby.” The worry in Moonman’s voice gave way to pride. “Alien. That’s some authentic Skink shit right there.”
“No lie. Got it from a Ship-man in the fleet.”
“Two quart o’ Nem.”
“Seller’s market, Baby.”
Which meant this Ship-man must have been a shuddering junkie wreck. Moonman never mentioned addiction directly.
There was a catch on the box, made of bronze and purple stones. Zama couldn’t spot any lid at first, then he realised its edge lay hidden amongst the carving’s swirls and ridges.
He made to open it.
“No!” Moonman tried to grab the box.
“Quit whining,” Zama brushed him off with ease. But he didn’t open the box. Not yet. “So what’s in it?”
“Sorta…drugs. I guess.”
Zama laughed. “This your stash box now? You’re some class act, fool. If the Cops—”
“No, man,” Moonman said. “Not drug drugs. Something like drugs. Hits up y’skull but not the same way. Some other-world shit, tune? Skink drugs.”
Zama felt electricity in his guts. Something new for once. He’d tried every drug, had collected the entire set and moved on by the time he’d been twenty. Now he felt like a teenager again.
“So what’s it do?”
“Hard to describe. Only tried it once.” Moonman scratched his ginger goatee. “Main difference is, you don’t smoke, shoot or snort. Just stare, man. The hit goes through your eyes.”
Crazy. Yet it had to be true—Moonman hadn’t the imagination for this level of gibberish.
He went to open the catch again.
“No, no, please!” Moonman waved his palms in Zama’s face.
“You don’t understand, Zama! There’s, there’s something about it, I can’t explain ya, I…” He gave Zama the full brunt of his stare, red-lined and puppyish. “It’s like, uh…all we know is tiny, you tune? Like a tiny island folks were never meant to roam far from. Because we might get hit by traffic or some shit. Some things, Zam, some things people ain’t meant to know.”
Zama stared back at Moonman a moment.
“Ah, come on, Mooney. Like you’ve got something better to do today.”
Moonman blinked. Slowly, his frown curled to a grin.
“Shit,” he said. “When you put it like that…let’s crank that bitch open!”
“Yeah!” Zama gestured at the couch, the screen churning out adverts before it. “Gonna get eye-high!”
“You first,” Moonman said, settling down on the couch.
“No way, man. Show me how it’s done.”
Moonman took a shallow breath. Then he undid the box’s catch and looked in.
An odd sort of light poured on to Moonman’s face as he gazed in the box. It reminded Zama of reflected light, like that of the old-time mirror ball he kept under his bed. No, not quite. More like those blobs that float in your vision when you look away from bright lights, that stick in your eyes. After-images; was that the term? Except box-light didn’t follow wherever the eye looked. It stayed put, there for all to see.
“Sweet fuckamoomoo…” Moonman said, closing the lid and crashing back on the couch.
Zama lifted the box from his dealer’s open hand. He took one look at Moonman; his face was still, his eyes twitching. As if checking the room.
Zama lifted the lid and gazed.
A stone sat inside the box, a crystal held in place by carved talons that rose from the woodwork. The stone was faceted, patterned the same as its container. Image-light bloomed from it—an imprint of the stone’s form expanding into Zama’s focus. Filling the world.
Everything became after-image, an eyeblob-universe. He couldn’t sense the apartment, the couch, his own body. Nothing but colour and nameless silhouettes. Somewhere in the oceanic trench of his unconscious a fissure cracked wide. Figures dancing down there, one of them rising. Laughing in silence.
His ass was back on the couch—he could feel it. Moonman was squatting on the floor, looking around the apartment and laughing. The air felt like liquid, like treacle. Zama couldn’t quite figure where his skin ended and the air began.
“Shit,” he said. Everything felt kind of…
“Smoosh,” said Moonman.
Something was wrong with all the posters. Rock gods and glamour models stared out as always, but now something lay behind their faces. They’d become masks, Zama was certain of it. Silent flames raged from behind each face, image-fire that hid from view whenever he focussed on a lone source. Somehow, he felt the fire watched.
Time passed. Zama rolled a joint and the two of them watched the screen. News, music videos, carbon forecasts. And still the treacle-air, the flames behind frozen smiles.
How could the authorities legislate against these stones, thought Zama, when they couldn’t even risk looking at them? How could Cops seize them? The poor bastards were fascists after all, not drug fiends. They hadn’t the training. Most likely they’d freak—wear their gasmasks as thongs and boogie like frigid pterodactyls! Wow. The ramifications were m—
Someone kicked the front door.
Zama leapt to his feet. “What the fuh—”
More kicks. Again and again.
“Ahh shit!” Moonman whined. “Ah shit!” He leapt up from the sofa, took four steps and dropped to his knees.
Zama suspected that whoever was kicking the door wanted Moonman. Was that his true reason for coming in through the balcony?
The door flew off its hinges.
Zama recognised the guy behind it—Regenburg; one mean bastard, he ran drugs on the level above. Combat stims mainly, adrenosmac cut with glass and who knew what else. He had a shaved head, furious eyes and a gun in one hand. With the other he pointed at Moonman.
“You slippy ginger fuck-end!” Regenburg’s voice rang the air like nails thrown at garbage cans. “Think you can get away from me? I’ll fuckin’ gut ya!”
“Ah shit,” Moonman whimpered, still on his knees. “Regenburg, please…”
Regenburg ran across the room and booted him in the shoulder. Moonman rolled across the carpet.
“Please?” Regenburg shouted. “Shoulda used please before you pitched on my patch, you tiny shit!”
He kicked Moonman in the stomach. Moonman hollered, scrambled back on to his knees. He lunged at Zama’s shins and hugged them.
“Zee, please,” he cried, “you gotta help me, man!”
“Ya” big boyfriend won’t help,” Regenburg said. “I’ll blow his fuckin’ head off!” He pointed the handgun at Zama’s face.
Zama squirmed, waited to die. It didn’t come: Regenburg just kept the gun aimed on him. Zama had never been threatened with a gun before. Perhaps it was the drugs, the stone, but the experience didn’t feel real—he’d seen it in films too often. Hell, he glimpsed some actor on his screen going through it right now.
“Mr Regenburg,” Zama said. “I’m sure Moonman meant no insult, Sir. Probably didn’t even think.”
Regenburg’s eyes narrowed. “You think I shove guns in dick’s faces for their opinions? Shut it!”
“Moonman can pay you!”
“Yeah, with brain splatter!”
Regenburg’s face went blank. “If you mean some…porn thing,” he said, “you’ll be picking your liver out the sink.”
“No, no. Look on the couch.”
Regenburg did so.
“Shit.” Gun still trained on Zama, he bent down and picked up the alien box.
“You keep that, Sir.” Zama said. “Payment owed. Deal?”
Regenburg smiled, shrugged his shoulders.
“They say criminals are merely businessmen,” he said. “But in my case I’m a vicious asshole. I’m gonna take this little pretty and fuck you both up. Fuck you up like an air-crash.”
Moonman whimpered on the floor.
Zama had an idea. He decided to put it into action before sense had a say.
“Mr Regenburg? Could you at least…”
“Moon’s mother. She’s in the box. Her ashes. Could we at least, I dunno, pour her into my swim trophy or something?”
“What part of “vicious asshole” don’t you understand?” Regenburg laughed. He looked over to Moonman. “Drop your pants and spread “em, dickhead,” he told him. “Momma’s coming home!”
Regenburg opened the catch of the box with a surprisingly elegant flick of his left thumb. The image-fire, that light that was not, danced across his cheekbones.
He gazed into the box, froze with wonder.
Zama dashed across to Regenburg and shoved the box into the man’s eyes. His hand still clutching it, the open box entirely covered Regenburg’s left eye. He hit the floor like a rammed lamppost.
Zama dropped to his knees and prized the gun from Regenburg’s hand. It took a while. The man’s fingers were stiff and Zama had to be careful with the trigger. He threw the weapon onto the couch.
Bad craziness, thought Zama. What now? What happens when Regenburg comes to? Zama was no expert at making enemies. Now he’d belly-flopped the deep end.
He stared at Regenburg. The wooden box lay face-down over his left eye like some primeval attempt at a monocle. He wondered what Regenburg must be experiencing. Moonman and Zama had only ever glanced at the stone, and that had been enough to sink their battleship for hours. Would Regenburg recall any of this? Hell, would he even talk again?
Closing his eyes, Zama leaned over Regenburg and made to take the box from his face.
“Motherfucker!” Moonman yelled.
Zama felt Regenburg’s body shudder as Moonman’s boot flew into it. It had far more power than Zama expected of the little bastard.
Another kick. Zama’s lids became washed with image-light. The box must have flown across the floor.
He heard a laugh, a sharp “ha!” that was neither his nor Moonman’s. Female. At least, female to Zama’s ears. To his belly, his bones, it rumbled deep as thunder.
He opened his eyes to see Moonman stood over Regenburg, howling like a beast and smacking the sides of his own head with his palms. “Hoidri Gahrooont,” he screamed. Clearly out of orbit, sans-smoosh, whacked on the stone’s dark juju.
Zama stumbled up off the floor, back on to his feet. Image-light bounced off the walls, off the screen and couch. The lid had broken off. He could see it near Regenburg’s right boot. Zama grabbed the lid and gazed around for the box itself.
Easy enough—just follow the light, the mind-flames, to their source. The alien stone still lay inside its home, held in place by those sculpted wooden claws. He dived at it.
In the moment before fitting the lid back in place, Zama had no choice but to stare right at the stone. It filled his vision, the apartment fading. Simultaneously, he felt a presence to one side, an unseen body made of static. No; ecstatic.
The presence whispered in his ear, its voice that of the female laugh.
Arah bogbog flah yubba, it said, Hoidri gahroont rhawahnee.
Zama fixed the lid on its box and the presence disappeared. The image-light vanished.
The head-fuck remained. Zama took a deep breath, massaged his brow.
Moonman kept on shouting. None of it made sense.
Zama looked up to see him still curled over Regenburg’s body, pouring animal nonsense into the man’s face.
“Calm down!” Zama cried. He stumbled to his feet and lurched toward the two men. He grabbed Moonman’s waist and pulled.
“Geturrf!” growled Moonman. “Geturrfamehh!”
Struggling, Zama had a full view of the back of Moonman’s jacket. It wasn’t right. The holo-image no longer juddered between two frames—that of the brunette and the brunette with a serpent around her. Now it was both at once, a serpent-woman. Perfect. Her muzzled face winked back at Zama.
Zama fell back, letting go of Moonman. Free, Moonman tumbled forward, tripping over Regenburg.
BANG BANG BANG
Gunfire. Zama curled into a ball.
Silence followed, save for the wild claims of adverts blurting from the screen. The smell of spent railshot—like burnt hair and battery acid—filled the apartment.
Zama got to his feet.
“Shit,” he said. “Shit!”
There was a smoking hole in his ceiling, another through a kitchen cupboard and a third through the backrest of his couch. His screen was unharmed at least—still buzzing with rumours of war and telethons.
“Why’d you do that?” Moonman asked Zama. “Why y’grab me like that?”
Zama turned to face him. Moonman had Regenburg’s gun in his right hand, pointed at nothing.
“W-why’d I—? Why’d you shoot up my fucking home?”
“Just trying to scare Regenburg.” Moonman nodded at the gun in his hand. “If you hadn’t grabbed me it wouldn’t have gone off.”
“You-ratty-little-bastard! How dare you, how fucking dare you! Look at this place! Look! Put the gun down!”
Moonman started to cry. “Ah, come on, man. That bastard said he’d pour mom up my tailpipe!” He turned to Regenburg. “Bastard! I’da been crappin’ her for days…”
“Alright, Moonman. You’re way too high here. Calm down. Your mom’s alive, remember?”
“Shit,” Moonman said, wiping off tears, “you’re right—she making me dinner tonight.” He laughed. “Man, this is the last time I get eye-high.”
“Listen, Moon. I want you to put down the gun. Slowly, you tune?”
“Yeah.” Moonman nodded. “I tune.”
Moonman’s head became red mist. His jaw remained, ginger goatee hanging from it. Moonman’s body held still a moment, then hit the floor.
“Moonman!” Zama shouted.
The shot hadn’t come from the gun in Moonman’s hand. Zama spun to face the doorway.
A cop loomed there, mask and body armour glinting. He—or she—held a Phalliconda 9, heat waves rising from its barrel. The Cop turned it on Zama.
“Hands on your head,” the Cop said, voice sexless through the mask’s speaker. “Kneel.”
Zama did so. He had to fight back noises in his throat, had to screw down rage. “You didn’t have to shoot. Why did you—”
“Armed suspect down,” said the Cop, ignoring Zama. “Room cleared.”
A gurgling sound came from the Cop’s mask—someone else’s voice over the system. The Cop marched across to Regenburg and prodded his chest with an armoured boot. Regenburg opened his eyes, stared. He wept with laughter.
“Sickening,” the Cop said.
Zama noticed movement on a poster, just behind the Cop. Dainty, clawed feet slid down from the back of it, followed by slender legs. A silhouette of image-light. Silent.
The torso came next; serpent-like, with high breasts. Then arms and hands. The hands flexed their fingers—sinuous, clawed. Her whole body was made of image-light, a sculpture carved of pure eye-blur.
Her head slid out from behind the poster. The image-girl’s face had an animal’s muzzle, long and reptilian, and when she grinned Zama saw two ranks of dainty razors. Above this sat eyes that were no eyes at all—just empty holes, revealing nothing but the walls behind her. She had long hair—or something like it—yet it rolled and bobbed as if she moved underwater.
“Ha,” laughed the image-girl and she danced across the room. The cop didn’t notice her, even as she leapt over Regenburg and giggled.
The Image-girl jumped and spun, finally coming to rest just behind the screen. She stretched out her arms and grasped the screen’s top corners, framing its plasma with her alluring strangeness. Why? Zama wondered. What could she want with it? Was she trying to tell him something?
“We tailed you, idiot,” the Cop was telling Regenburg, not that Regenburg seemed to notice. “You and your pals are gonna be stars.”
Zama stared at the screen and saw that that was true. Hamilton Yolb was running down the corridor outside Zama’s apartment, talking to the camera.
“You join us live at Priesler memorial Ziggat,” Yolb told the camera, “level seventy, where an intercession is in progress. Gunfire’s been exchanged, a subsequent fatality and—I’m told—a probable seizure. Come on!”
“Shit,” Zama muttered. Somewhere in his shock hid a sadness—he’d let that damn show appear on his screen.
The Image-girl tittered and—somehow—Zama caught her gist. She wanted, like most aliens he’d heard about, to invade.
Just not worlds.
“Good god,” came a voice from both the screen and the apartment’s doorway. “Look at all this.” The image on the screen turned into an endlessly regressing tunnel, the kind you get when a camera stares at its own live feed.
Zama looked away from the screen and to the doorway. Hamilton Yolb, large as life. A camera floated beside him, recording with its HD eye. Another cop followed him into the room.
The first Cop turned to Yolb.
“It began as a standard observe-report,” said the Cop, who seemed confident before a lens. “But, as you can see, an armed suspect’s been neutralised and two others arrested.”
Moonman was neutralised alright, thought Zama, none more so. Fuck Yolb and his cops, his whole circus. Fuck “em all.
“And the contraband?” Yolb asked the Cop.
“Erm…” The Cop hesitated, looked around.
“See that box there?” he said.
The camera zoomed in, six billion eyes in tow.
About the Author
Photo by Jasmine Stairs
James Worrad lives in Leicester, England. He is a graduate of the 2011 Clarion Writer's Workshop at UCSD, where he befriended a marvelous collection of writers and mountebanks who style themselves The Narwolves. He’s had fiction appear in Daily Science Fiction. By night, he looks after a busy hotel all on his lonesome. He is never short of material.
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