by Fumizuki (文月) (mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/236496.html)
You couldn’t tell the latest generation of automata from human beings. That was common knowledge, so common in fact it was on the books as law in some countries. No disclosure required, and in any case, terribly rude to ask. You still found many of them working in the arts, hitting perfect-pitched notes and playing instruments with virtuosity, but the telltale markers of thirty or forty years ago were long gone. Your girlfriend with the perfect body and the strange light eyes was just as likely to have paid to have those features added to her flesh and blood body as she was to have had them built into her by equally mechanical hands. What was the point of trying to tell, anyway? It didn’t matter anymore.
Saif didn’t need to ask, though; he always knew. Even after all this time. He rested his forearms on the edge of the opera box and leaned forward, closing his eyes and tilting his head down over all the space between him and the orchestra below. The lead soprano, with her spirals of burnt honey hair and simply spectacular breasts, she was entirely human; the baritone singing opposite her, however, belting out profound notes from deep within his mighty beard, he was wires and circuits beneath his skin. Saif could keep himself occupied with this game for the entirety of the performance; he honestly found it a more interesting diversion than opera itself. But rituals were rituals and promises were promises. Even though his date was late, and more than just in his usual fashionable manner.
“Welcome to Reno. If you quote ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ at any time in my presence, I will smother you with a cushion and leave your body in the desert.”
“Hello to you, too,” said Ross, switching his carry-on to the opposite shoulder. He’d not been off the plane for five minutes and it already felt like he was on another planet: the giant wall ads for “gentlemen’s clubs” sharing space with family-friendly ski resort photos had been weird enough, but the taxidermied animals were another thing entirely. If he hadn’t seen them with his own eyes the notion of slot machines in an airport—most nestled behind the security checkpoints, no less—would’ve seemed like a bad joke at the expense of Nevada as a whole. The tall, wolflike man with well-groomed dreads and a chauffeur’s uniform looming out of the crowd seemed downright normal after staggering past rows of whimsically-themed video poker machines. Ross had to tilt his head up to look him in the face. “C. Ngom, right?” he asked.
“Just Chet is fine,” said Chet. He inclined his head to the duffel bag that was threatening to make Ross crab-walk the rest of the way through the terminal from its weight. “Want some help with that, buddy?”
It was all Frankie’s idea. If it were up to me and Ishmael, none of this would’ve happened.
Okay, maybe it would’ve happened, but it wouldn’t’ve happened in a way that we knew about.
It was a usual Tuesday night in the casino, money was flowing and the lights were bright. Ishmael — the crew calls him Mael but it doesn’t suit him – and I were walking the floor over by the blackjack tables keeping an eye on the girls. Tuesday nights were the nights the boss scheduled the real pretty girls to get money in since it’s so slow usually. Our boss doesn’t like scheduling a lot of girls on the weekend since the drunks tend to get handsy. After one of the girls pulled out a hair stick and stabbed a customer for copping a feel, that policy went into effect real fast. We like our girls feisty, but stabbing idiots hurts business.
Connie over at the blackjack tables reached up to her impeccably tight French twist and tucked a nonexistent stray lock back into her ‘do. The tacky, blocky costume jewelry bracelet on the moving hand winked in the lights. That was the signal. Someone at her table was raking in the money a little too well. Truth be told, we don’t really care how he was doing it — counting cards, got something up his sleeve, even Lady Luck blowing him under the tables — but the man was done. Casinos existed to make money for the people that ran them, not the people that played in them. I shifted closer to the tables to get a scope on things while Ishmael called in the cavalry. I could hear him through the earpiece.
He was surrounded by a sea of faces. Every so often, anticipation would swell up slowly and then all of a sudden burst, in a wave of emotion. At the table to his left, a woman cried out with glee, jumping up and down with excitement and squealing like a piglet. At the table to his right, a man stared down at his hand, sweat dripping from his tightened brow. The highs and lows seemed exaggerated, like a caricature of day-to-day life.
To Connor, it was just another day at work. The regulars at the Black Stallion were some of the richest of the spacefaring elite, visiting Vega’s only station from their ships and colonies to try their hand at the latest games of chance; it was the only gambling establishment to achieve the coveted six-moon rating for hospitality. In the course of their stays, some would win and some would lose, and though the latter was more common, people kept coming back.
“Velly solly, honorable sirs,” he said, all the while thinking, fuck your mothers.
“Wake up! Wake up!” An all-too-familiar voice screeched into Shizuka’s ear. “It’s your big day!”
“I hate you,” he mumbled into the blankets, trying to retreat under his pillow. “Go away, Mika.”
“No sleeping in today,” his sister sang as she mercilessly yanked off his covers. “You can’t be late for the ceremony.”
He groaned, knowing resistance was futile but not wanting to haul himself out of bed yet.
Mika stole his pillow and started beating him with it, cackling as he curled into a defensive ball. She’d never stopped being gleeful to have somebody younger to pick on, even after her six-year advantage shrank when he hit his growth spurt.
“All right, all right, I’ll get up,” Shizuka sighed, finally opening his eyes.
With the last rays of the dying sun painting everything red, the city becomes, if not beautiful, at least tolerable. The oil slicks in the river shine bright crimson, the shadows in the street lengthen more and more, the noise of traffic dims as the few citizens still around hurry to get home before curfew. At night, when darkness envelops the buildings, the city looks even better. If only the night never ended, Juan thinks, at least he wouldn’t have to see how ugly the place is.
Juan never liked this city, not even a little. He feels he ought to, because being born and raised here has to count for something, but a lifetime in the city has only given him a lifetime of bad memories. A man like him has no need for sentimentality. Sometimes he’s tempted to pack his things and leave, to take his gang with him if they will follow him, and find another place to live. Another city that’s less ugly, less smelly, less noisy, less deadly. Tempting as that thought is, Juan always ends up staying, always will, even though if anyone asked he wouldn’t be able to explain why. Maybe because he knows that no matter where he goes, the whole world is rotten to the core, rotten like the mounds of garbage filling the streets.
On the night everything ends and everything starts, Juan is sitting at his favorite corner table at Charley’s, halfway through a glass of something that’s less tequila and more like something you’d use to clean an engine. He knows that something’s wrong the moment he sees Amira making her way through the dance floor. The place is packed as usual, but one look at her crimson headband and everyone hurries out of the way. Juan stares at her and tips back the last of the tequila. He has a feeling he will need it.
“You’re looking well, Domingo.” Yun smiled quite cheerfully as he said so, knowing that Domingo would take it quite personally. He did look healthy, to an extent; beneath the bloodied nose and fast-forming bruises, Domingo had the bronzed look of someone who had been somewhere with real sunshine quite recently, a fact made more apparent by his greying hair. Yun did note, with some happiness, that his enforcer had been considerate enough to set his old friend’s glasses aside before beginning on his face.
“Same to you,” Domingo replied. “I was hoping we could talk.” They’d left him all his teeth, too; Yun made a mental note to thank them for their judgment once this whole mess settled down.
“If you wanted to talk, all you had to do was say so, instead of first trying to empty my poor casino’s bank. That makes it not really my call, the whole being civil and not using brute force thing.”
Yun nodded to Lin, the man guarding the door, and entered a code into the handcuffs holding Domingo to his chair. They beeped and clicked open in response. Shortly after, Lin returned with some ice, two empty glasses, a third glass filled with water, and a bottle of whisky.
Domingo was taking his time saying more, but looked grateful to have the cuffs off, judging from the way he stretched his arms and began to rub at his wrists. Yun handed him the glass of water, sat himself in the extra chair, and waved his men away. The door shut behind them.
This had been the worst week in Robert’s recent memory.
It had started with little things, small incidents that he could brush off individually. Things like the papercuts he kept getting from the documents he handled in the office, or the fact that he kept having to deal with the most irritating customer service calls while his colleagues only ever got the polite ones.
From there, it had been quick to escalate. The injuries he gave himself became more serious, and instead of one-off incidents, it would be small things chained together that got worse as they went. He would leave his umbrella home on a sunny day only to be caught in a sudden downpour; he would run for shelter, only to trip over and nearly fall in the way of a passing car. He’d just been clipped that time, but his luck had plummeted since then.
The cards were not in my favor tonight. My supply of credits had dwindled down to nearly nothing, and I didn’t even have enough to deal in for another game, much less feed myself the next day.
“Tough luck, Andy.” The dealer gave me a half-hearted smile. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“Yeah, maybe.” God, I hate it when people call me Andy. I tapped at the screen on the table a few times and opted out of the game, taking my glass as I left.
When Jim said he wanted to go to Berlin and he thought Alfred ought to come with him, Alfred had imagined a city somewhat like his mother’s stories of Paris before the war: the Arc de Triomphe became the Brandenburger Tor, and Alfred imagined himself and Jim sitting in cafes and drinking coffee while Jim gave Alfred each page of his book as it was typed, and Alfred contributed comments that were invariably well-received by the inspired author.
Of course, he’d heard of Berlin—the cabarets, the prostitutes, the Berliner Luft that made the city’s inhabitants act like madmen—from his mother, repeatedly. She had interspersed these admonishments with wistful remembrances of Alfred’s elder brother Tom, who’d been slaughtered by Germans—probably Berliners—in 1916.
Alfred barely remembered Tom, and barely remembered the war. Jim had said he wanted to work on his book, and he thought the change of scenery would do Alfred good. Alfred had acknowledged that was true and packed his suitcase, discounting his mother’s apocalyptic musings on the sad inevitability of her son’s fall from grace into sin and vice. Now that he was here Alfred felt hopelessly naive for thinking Jim would have been drawn to Berlin by anything other than sin and vice.
Phil takes Joaquim down from the clinch with a standing leg sweep, but Joaquim is fast, the fucker, and he gets Phil’s face once on the way down and again on the ground, trisecting Phil’s head with two searing lines of pain. Phil’s head is spinning, but he drags himself together and pushes through, slamming the meat of his hand into Joaquim’s head twice before Kiet calls it and Phil releases, staggering up and back, then bending in to help Joaquim up. Everything is roaring, everywhere, and Phil’s right eye is stinging.
“You all right, man?” he yells to Joaquim, patting his shoulder. The promoter’s assistant, the skinny Asian guy with hipster glasses and a blue plaid shirt, is still watching them so intently Phil can feel it.
Joaquim nods, looking a little out of focus, but Kiet is leaning in and saying, “Borrell, Dr. Jake better look you over—Navarro, get yourself cleaned up,” which is when Phil realizes he’s bleeding.
Hipster Glasses holds the cage door open while Phil helps Joaquim out.
“Need a hand?” Hipster Glasses asks.
“You can’t keep doing this to yourself.”
Saif’s voice came out muffled with the screwdriver in his teeth, and he pulled it out and flipped it into his other hand, instead. Key sighed, leaning his head back against the wall. His foot shifted an inch or two forward when he did, but though Saif frowned up at him, he didn’t seem to notice. “There is no need to exaggerate. The damage is not severe.”
“It looks bad enough from down here.” He plucked out the tiny screws from the panel in four twists, quick as a bird picking up seeds. The metal was dented so badly it had crumpled inward, and Key’s face and shoulders seemed to lose some tension at having it off. Saif caught his eyes lingering there, and forced them back down, to the tangle of wires and circuitry inside. “Doesn’t look like there was much damage on the inside, at least… Thick-skinned, you are.” Key snorted, and Saif grinned up at him in spite of himself, sniffing and arming stray hair off his sticky forehead. His gloves were covered in grease. “There’s one receptor terminal that’s barely hanging on, though. That’s probably what’s hurting you. I’ll have to replace it — brace yourself.”
Key blinked down at him, then scowled. “You have a very poor bedside manner.”
“Most of my patients don’t complain as much as you. Hold still, too.” Saif grabbed up the pliers and a pair of wire-cutters in one hand without looking, settling his spectacles back in place with the other. He only needed them for close work, but considering he practically had his nose buried in Key’s leg already — “I mean it, you know. You shouldn’t work for anyone who thinks of you as a doorstop.”