Mac met up with Lev in the quays of Jetsam Flats, just as the soot-streaked sky was lightening from purple. He'd been living outside for two weeks, still learning how to sleep with a respirator on.
Which was why he felt dead-tired and never saw the Collection team until they pounced.
He'd come strolling up, Lev beside him. Their confederate, Cal, was waiting as agreed, leaning against a plastic-covered mound only inches from the water. Cal with his arms folded, his hood pulled forward and trying to look nonchalant. Like the three of them didn't have Big Plans for the morning.
Then he felt it. Instant roiling in his guts. And just as his knees folded and dropped him to the filth, he thought, Oh shit, because he'd had the sensation before, and knew what a non-lethal ambush meant. Cal and Lev were writhing, too.
Half a dozen men came boiling out from behind a midden heap, each one encased in armor. Mac scoped them as Independents by the artwork stenciled on the ceramic plating; ochre vulture skulls and crossbones, against gold-flecked black. One of them clutched a wide beam maser with a square barrel. Mac figured that was the weapon that had laid him out.
They came to him first, kicked his hood away, and took one look at the ideogram stamped on his forehead. Moved on, muttering curses beneath their faceplates. Mac's breathing calmed a little. Next came Lev, but they could see his indigo-mottled skin without much prodding and gave him a pass, too.
Cal, poor bastard – not his lucky day. One Collector pinioned his arms and the other tore his respirator off. Cal's goiter glowed cherry red under his swollen neck, a sure tag of thyroid cancer, but it must've been lean times in the collection business, because they popped him with a hypo anyway, started laying his slack body out on a folding gurney. The guy with the hypo complained their haul wasn't worth the joules it took for a maser shot.
Mac had recovered a little in the meanwhile. Enough, if he wanted, to fling himself up and try something stupid. Like bouncing a shiv off all that hard armor. Or trying to wrestle well-fed, gene-modified goons who outnumbered him six to one. So he stayed right where he was.
A glance at Lev's flat eyes told him his friend was thinking the same thing.
And for maybe the thousandth time in his young life, he thanked his father for blowing the last of the family money on the Genetic Undesirables stamp gracing his forehead, a five-armed logo warning of tainted nucleotides and dangerous recessives. The GU rating made his organs worthless and kept his flesh out of the Long Pork tacos hawked on every corner of Jetsam Flats.
He lay sprawled there, waiting, until the team hauled Cal away.
Lev helped him to his feet. "Well, more for us, I guess."
They tore the plastic off the mound. Underneath sat a five-foot thick slab of Styrocore, lashed with tubing to protect the edges. Mac looked the thing over and frowned. "Not much of a raft."
"Cal talked it up, alright," Lev said. "Where's the fucking pole?"
Finding it took half an hour. Mac saw the end of a pipe sticking out of the same heap the Collectors had been hiding behind and drew it out. The pipe kept coming, and didn't stop until he had about fifteen feet in his hands.
"Long enough, at least," Lev said.
The raft was Cal's contribution to their venture. Lev knew the location. And Mac had been invited along, his friendship with Lev notwithstanding, this was business, because he could hit a pigeon on the wing with nothing more than a strip of cloth and a rock. He'd been bagging meat this way for the Sal Goynes Co-Opt since the age of ten, and would've continued doing so but for the dissolution of said Co-Opt about a month ago, dumping him on the street.
They'd been running low on pigeons, anyways.
Mac and Lev shouldered the raft into the Soup. It bobbed there for a moment, looking none too seaworthy, and it took some coaxing from Lev for Mac to crawl aboard. The Styrocore dipped immediately under their weight, stopping about a hands-breadth from the glossy water. Lev rose to his feet, cautious, and used the pole to push them from the quay.
Lev poled. Mac uncoiled his sling, a ghetto weapon made from two braided cords and a pouch in the center. He laid out six bullets of scavenged lead for quick use.
The sky turned lavender and dumped benzene-mingled rain on their heads.
When the clouds cleared up, so did the Soup. Mac could look over the side and see the pole refracting down, pushing against the detritus of a hundred generations. God knew what was all heaped down there. A couple years ago there'd been rumors of cannibal fish that could force themselves up from the water, flop around long enough to snare children, but Mac knew that was bullshit. Nothing organic could survive in the Soup. And if mutant life was to somehow flourish, everybody and their dog would be out on the water with nets, fishing it back to extinction.
Which reminded him how hungry he was.
"Heads up," Lev said.
They'd poled far enough out that Jetsam Flats was just a jagged silhouette promising wickedness. The floating trash piles were giving way to a forest of girders and crossbeams jutting from the rainbow-slicked Soup. About fifty feet ahead a beam slanted low over the water, thick enough for several people to stand on or take cover by lying prone. And yup, as he watched, a thin shape popped up as if to get a better view of the raft and ducked back down. The shape had been holding a short spear looped to its' wrist.
"Children of Entropy, what do you bet?" Lev said.
"They got atl-atl's."
Mac fitted a thumb-sized bullet to the sling's pouch. He stood up, legs spread akimbo on the shifting surface. At forty feet he whipped the sling in an overhand arc and loosed at the precise moment. The bullet spanged against a crossbeam, the metal striking so hard it flattened and stuck there.
Lev pulled his respirator off. "More where that came from, motherfuckers," he shouted, cupping a hand around his mouth. "Just show your heads again, give my friend something to hit."
"We lost Cal, risked that shit back there, for this?"
Lev had guided them to the gutted core of a skyscraper, clogged with trash. Polycrete chunks, cracked open and barring fang-like ribs of rusted metal, surrounded the ruin, threatening to impale the raft if they tried to moor it.
"What am I supposed to be watching?"
"That part. There." Lev pointed.
Mac followed his gesture to a wicked cluster of spikes, spitting distance from the raft. Watched. For a minute, nothing. Then the spikes warped. They seemed to melt, droop away at impossible angles, flickered. Then they were spikes again.
Lev thrust the pole at the cluster. It passed through with no resistance.
"Hologram," he said. "I spotted it two months back, working another job for Slim Jim Beck. We were out here on a proper skiff, not like this piece of shit. I saw the flicker and thought my eyes were playing tricks, but it happened again. I didn't tell anyone else on the crew, just figured I'd come back later and see what that thing was hiding."
"What do you think?"
"Got to be something," Mac said, looking at the phantom spikes. "They can't make holograms anymore."
Lev pushed the raft towards the cluster. A three-foot claw of corroded steel reached for Mac's face, and illusion or not, he had to fight to keep from ducking. He shut his eyes. When he opened them again he saw a crazy matrix of criss-crossed golden threads, then darkness, then sudden light as the raft passed into an open space.
The hologram, and the ruined walls of the skyscraper, concealed a vast interior bowl of poured Polycrete. Not new, but not dilapidated like the outside. In the bowl's center, a tower rose from the lapping Soup, covered with massive intake vents.
"Industrial, I think," Lev said.
Not what Mac had expected. But the structure looked intact, the intake vents were humming, sucking in poison air, and something had to be powering them. Ergo, the tower must have shit worth stealing.
Lev poled them closer, and they made a circuit of the tower's base. There was no obvious way in. However, one of the lower vents stayed quiet while the others around it whooshed, and Mac, after standing on Lev's back and hauling himself up by the vent's rusted lip, saw why. The fan blades inside weren't moving. Behind them, angling down into the darkness, gaped an air shaft wide enough to accommodate a man.
Lev cut tubing from the side of the raft using a ceramic knife, and tossed one end up to Mac, who tied it around a frozen fan blade. The raft moored, Lev bent and leapt for the vent's lip. He caught it with one hand and Mac pulled him up by seizing the other. They crouched in the circular space, listening. More humming drifted up from the shaft. Lev gave Mac a hard look and drew his knife from beneath his parka. He started to crawl down the shaft, keeping the blade clutched in his hand. Mac tied the sling's cords around his arm, drew his own shiv, and followed.
They got maybe twelve feet. The shaft turned into flexible tubing, and the plastic, fragile with dry-rot, ripped beneath them. Mac tumbled for the space of a second before hard metal reached up and slammed his tailbone. The shiv went flying. He heard Lev cuss nearby and groped for him, because they'd been plunged into semi-darkness.
First thing he noticed, after touching the reassurance of Lev's parka, was the air quality. When you went inside a structure with intact pumps and filters the taint level was supposed to drop. But the HUD in Mac's respirator still read amber, the same as outside conditions on a typical day.
Second thing he noticed, as his eyes adjusted, were the rows of human-sized silhouettes surrounding them.
Lev rolled to his feet, knife ready. Mac looked around in the dimness for his weapon and couldn't find it. But the human shapes didn't converge. In fact, they remained stock-still.
"Listen," Lev said.
Gasping sounds. The whirr and click of complicated machines.
Mac got up and inspected the closest figure. It was human, all right. Gender hard to tell because of the shaved head, emaciated chest, and series of tubes and hoses gobbling the body below the waist. He figured it was a guy. A vertical framework kept him standing and bound his limbs. His head drooped, but Mac heard him sucking breath through his mouth – and here was a special horror — he was breathing without any filter or mask, just taking in that raw sewage, straight. Oddly, there was some kind of apparatus covering his nose, connected by two snake-like tubes running into the floor. But since the guy seemed to be exhaling into that, Mac didn't see what good it would do.
Lev joined him. He looked at the living corpse slumped there, then at the rows of similarly bound-and-tubed figures, receding into the darkness. "How many . . .?"
At his voice, the figure stirred. He raised his head and his eyes were hallways with no doors and no lights at the end.
"Jesus, Lev. Cut his throat and do him a favor."
"You gentlemen touch my property," a voice behind them said, "and I'll burn you where you stand."
There were two of them.
Man-Plus types, a modified offshoot Mac had thought extinct, but here they were, all seven feet of them. Lean, even by ghetto standards, with rope-like muscles and grotesque endowments. The latter obvious because besides respirators, they wore only harness. Glittering tools and bone-fetishes hung from the black plastic straps. The slightly taller of the two pointed a maser at them.
The narrow-barreled kind. The kind that seared neat holes in people instead of making them nauseous.
"Step closer, please," he said.
Mac and Lev did so.
Two pairs of spider-hands seized them, snatched Lev's knife, frisked their parkas for further weapons and found none. The shorter freak laughed the whole time. There was an involuntary quality about it. His long limbs shook and his face twitched, and Mac remembered an outbreak of Kuru that had raged through Jetsam Flats one year, when the vendors had been mixing too much nervous tissue with the long pork. Something like that must have happened to this guy.
Not that he felt sorry for him.
"You two broke into the wrong establishment," Taller Freak said.
The shorter one stopped giggling long enough to say: "I told you the hologram's gone wonky."
"I'll fix it when I fix it."
More laughter. Taller cocked his head to one side like he was thinking. "Alright, you're coming down with us. We can figure out your punishment later, after –"
Mac saw Lev tense at 'punishment.' He started to bolt. Where the hell he could bolt to was a good question, but it didn't stop him. Tall Freak's bare foot lashed out. It connected with the back of Lev's knee and down he went.
The maser, Mac noticed, stayed level the whole time.
Down with us meant being prodded, shoved, and finally dragged into a cage-lift that made ominous creaking noises as it dropped. At some point in their descent the cage passed through a violent cross-current of air and the HUD in Mac's respirator blinked from amber to green. The lift shuddered to a stop. They filed out into a circular chamber crammed with electronics, furniture, tools, food, banks of monitor screens, and hospital beds with red-rusted sheets and worn straps.
Mac couldn't help staring at those.
The Freak Brothers removed their masks and hung them on a peg, then gestured for Mac and Lev to do the same. Mac took his off slow, bracing for the smell he'd learned to expect from sealed environments.
Surprise. The air smelled clean.
"Don't get much of that on the outs, do you?" Taller Freak said. He snuffed in a lungful. "Fresh. That's what we make here. Fresh air. Those zombies up top, they take it in, scrub the crap out with their own lungs. We route the CO2 down into a tank of pre-Soup algae, and the result, well, you're breathing it."
"Lot of demand for good air," Shorter Freak added.
Which made Mac's stomach hitch a little, thinking where the oxygen was coming from. But Jesus, it was fresh.
"Anyone with a filter can scrub air," Lev said. He'd taken off his respirator and was rubbing his knee.
"Yeah, but that shit's flat," Taller Freak said. "Tasteless. You ever have spring water? It's got minerals and other organic compounds that give it flavor. Re-processed water, that's all been leeched out. Air's the same way."
"What the fuck's spring water?" Lev said.
"Never mind. You Soup Rats get your clothes off, and onto those beds. It's exam time."
"I thought we were going to be punished," Mac said.
They stripped them, bound them to the gore-crusted beds, and probed.
Mac shut his eyes and thought about pigeons.
"Why's that one got purple skin?"
"It's not a mutation. Fungal symbiot, injected directly beneath the stratum corneum. Life cycle of the fungus provides extra adenosine, decreasing the need for food intake. The practice's unpopular for cosmetic reasons."
"Ah. What about the GU marker on this guy?"
Something cold and sharp dug into Mac's forehead.
He cracked an eyelid. Taller Freak crouched over him, so close he could smell his slaughterhouse breath. The shorter one hung back, holding the maser. He had, Mac noticed, an enormous erection.
God, he wished he hadn't noticed that.
"What're you going to do with us?" he said.
Taller Freak showed him a mouth of spade-like teeth. "We're trying to determine if you'd make good filters. That's one option. The other option is we eat you. Assuming it's safe, of course."
"Safety first," Shorter Freak said.
Mac hurled what strength he had left against the straps. They didn't budge. He tensed for a second attempt, but a giant fist slammed down without warning, the knuckles grazing his temple. He saw gray with flashes of white and the bed spun. Third try. He thrashed again. The straps came loose like magic, and he fell. Laughter.
"Okay," Taller said, "that's not the first thing we're going to do."
"No, not the first."
"You cover him. I'll get protection. No telling where that's been."
Mac pushed himself up. Shorter Freak hovered within kicking range, almost straddling him. He had the maser trained on his forehead. Out the corner of his eye, Mac could see Lev wriggling on the bed, still bound. Mac's clothes lay heaped a couple feet from his right hand, including the sling and bullets. The Freak Brothers hadn't recognized it as a weapon.
If he could reach--
Shorter Freak started laughing.
His whole body shook; his lungs filled and spasmed again. Shorter seemed to fight it, gritting his teeth, trying to keep the maser steady. But the Kuru played fuck with his nerves. He guffawed and his eyes rolled up in his head. The gun drifted wide.
Mac grabbed the sling, shoved a bullet in the pouch, and whirled it without releasing. The lead smacked into Shorter's eyesocket. Pulped it. Still laughing, Shorter clawed at the wound with his free hand. Mac seized the maser and tore it free. He jabbed the gun in Shorter's general direction, squeezing the firing stud three times.
Shorter stopped laughing.
"What, are you at him already?" came Taller's voice. "I thought I said—"
He appeared from behind a stack of boxes, holding a canister of spray-on prophylactic. Mac shot him.
His hand convulsed against the trigger and the barrel jerked from left to right. The beam's swath burned the top off Taller's head.
They threw sheets over the bodies.
A glance at the monitors showed what Mac had already suspected: the Freak Brothers, aside from their prisoners, were the only inhabitants. Mac and Lev had the complex to themselves.
"Makes you kind of wonder, doesn't it?" Lev said.
"These two." He pointed at the corpses under the sheets, still smoking and fouling the air with the familiar sweetness of cooked flesh. "Did they build this tower? Or did they just sneak in like we did, kill the owners, and take over. "
"I do. Maybe new people keep cycling through here, in a loop. Like the air."
"You're getting way too fucking metaphysical. Let's toss the place."
First thing they scavenged was food. Mac skipped the cartons of fibrous gray meat, tagging them as questionable, and crunched his way through six cans of bamboo shoots in soy protein broth. He found a container marked 'solvent' full of clear, alcohol-smelling liquid and had at that. Lev joined him. Stomachs full, heads lolling in glorious intoxication, they settled onto reclining chairs scaled for giants.
"Okay, good score," Lev said, his voice slurred. "But what about those people up there? We can't just . . . leave them plugged in, like that."
"No." Maybe it was his sudden change in fortune, but Mac felt a throb of humanity. Or maybe it was just the solvent. "I say mercy kill. We figure out how the life support works, then shut the whole grid off."
"But later, alright? I want to enjoy this."
"You keeping the gun?"
Mac patted the hard lump stashed in his pocket. "Mine by right of combat."
"Ah, crap," Lev said, and his eyelids fluttered. Less than a minute later the bootleg alcohol had rocked him to sleep.