The man’s blood was on her skin and now she would have to run.
Grid lines on powder-blue walls. Metallic warmth from inefficient tech. Light too soft for the horror of the room. She staggered back, away from the man. Limbs clumsy, adrenaline spiking, breath loud. A shake of the head. No trails, no blurred vision, nothing to suggest she’d been pumped with cybins and this was only grim illusion. It was too sharp, too immediate, for her to still be dreaming in the tank. There was a wetness on her hands, and when she brought them to her eyes she saw fingers dipped in red.
Words struggled to the surface. Where. Where am I.
She turned away from the body, saw a cylindrical rig hanging from the ceiling. MR chamber. That explained the grid lines; they aided the neocortex as it painted pictures. A stack of moulded objects in the corner, their purpose unknown. Educational, sexual, leisure. Too much to process. She probed her eye with the hand that wasn’t bloody. A thin membrane sitting atop her iris. Glass. So she’d been sharing his mix. She removed one from each eye, dropped them on the ground.
More questions. How long. What district. What city. What day.
One step at a time. She wore a jumpsuit, expensive, the kind a bleeding-edge NK advertorial would flash. Pockets all over. Only one turned up anything useful: an old denbar stick, not hers. She unrolled the razor-thin film, pressed her finger to the screen. It displayed a balance at the top. In the minus on carbon. How was it keyed to her touch? She couldn’t have been conscious when they did it. Who was ‘they’? All so unclear.
Nausea took her in the legs, made her shake. The man on the floor. She didn’t want to check him; touching the body would make it real. But without carbon she was going nowhere. With a dry throat she crouched beside him. She didn’t recognise the face. He was white, thickset, senior, no features to help him stand out in a crowd. He’d crisped his skin more than once, which meant he had money, but the lines of age still showed through like cracks in concrete.
No pulse. Head resting in a pool.
She turned her head away as she rifled through his suit. A newer-model denbar was tucked into an inside jacket pocket. Expecting nothing, she lifted his hand, pressed a finger to the end node. The screen fired up. In a second she’d swiped his carbon—barely a stack—and snapped the denbar in half.
She stumbled to the exit, her body still refusing her, and pressed her hand to the panel. Two squares of a Torggler rotated out and she left the chamber and the dead man behind.
A corridor, the same powder blue as the room, deserted for the moment. At its far end a camera blinked a single red eye at her. Security could already be on its way up. She needed a way out.
The command echoed around her head, unanswered. She tried again. Nothing. They’d nixed her chips before she went into the dream tank, but they’d said it would take only a thought to get them back online. Then again, they’d also said she would wake up in a clinic bed, and that hadn’t happened.
She dragged herself to the end of the corridor and stumbled down a set of stairs into a lobby, also empty, with a ceiling-to-floor lightwall. As she threw out a hand to steady herself, she saw how the skin there had become thicker, more wrinkled. No longer the hands of a mechanic. More like a fixer.
The lightwall flickered on when it clocked her and an impression materialised on the screen. Glossy bodysuit, large, glistening eyes, peroxide stubble cut, erotic pout. It gave her a good idea of what kind of place she was in.
‘Welcome to the Mardi Marquis.’ The impression bowed. ‘How may I assist the master of the house?’
High-end system. She didn’t recognise the name of the place. ‘Show me the way out.’
Her voice was husky. Maybe a side effect of breathing perfluorocarbon for so long.
The impression blinked and a map of the building appeared below it. A red pulse pinpointed her location. The exit was close.
‘Follow the arrows, please.’
Pale yellow darts in the floor, barely there so as not to disturb the ambience. She lurched after them, out of the lobby and through more corridors in the same infantile blue. Still no other customers or employees. Could be the place was closed. Could be the man in the room had been the owner. She drew up the hood on the jumpsuit to hide her face as best she could.
The arrows ended at another Torggler door, the two squares already rotated out. She peered around the frame. Compact foyer, muted floating screens with MR ads playing on a loop. Standing at a welcome station was a man in a bronze dashiki, his mouth and nose obscured by an air purifier, who was using a set of tongs to tease out the leaves of a small biotope. Micro-greening. Cheap propagation tech to rapidgrow miniature forests that—when cared for right—were supposed to suck ten times more carbon out of the atmosphere than a normal tree. His looked like it was fresh out the jar.
She ducked back behind the Torggler. No way to bypass the guy without being seen. She could handle herself well enough, but he would be carrying and he’d fry her before she got within ten paces. She needed another way out. The longer she stuck around, the more likely he’d pull up his room links and find the body.
Then a voice. Automatic, flat, broadcast from a wall screen: ‘Check refrigeration unit one-nine-alpha. Possible malfunction of diaphragm valve.’
She pressed her face to the doorway, saw how the welcome station glowed a soft red. The man frowned at his biotope, then muttered a confirmation. The station returned to its soft white. He dropped the tongs, ran a hand through heavy dreadlocks, and left through a service door under the floating screens.
As she entered the foyer, the screens flipped to graphic ads for near-death experiences and her adrenaline spiked again. The welcome station greeted her in Chinese. Ahead, the exit rolled open. No security loitering outside. She slipped through the door.
The bullet between her shoulder blades never came.
The GenuSstadt couldn’t have been mistaken for anything else. Poolers, parlours, head shops and 24/7 clubs, all part of a labyrinthine kiez frequented by suits, futurists and fringe elements. It made her uneasy to find herself so far away from the Lichterfelde dream tank she’d dropped into before lights out, but at least she was still in Berlin.
The air was hot and dry despite low-hanging clouds. She joined the manic press of people moving as one over rubberised paving strips that turned kinetic feet into hot current. The walls of every building spoke, sang, became amorphous strands of colour. GLISTEN: aural hydration ● Grafts, Plants & Augs, 500 M ● Linghai Algae Industries is Hiring in Nanhui – your chance at a sustainable future ● CasiNine Flavour DJ Tour – SOLD OUT! ● Next Left: Thebes House of Ruin. The fervid odour of fried insect mash drifted out from the doorway of a restaurant and made her stomach flip.
A few people eyed her, making her either for a junkie who’d do anything for carbon or one of the women who’d been kicked to the curb after Klaus Koje and Athos had changed the world with their announcement. Some, the suited ones, pushed past her like she didn’t exist. Despite how cheapjack the GenuSstadt was, most of the citizens on the streets were growthers who took the maglev from Potsdamer Platz to the kiez for a little entertainment in between work, sleep and more work. Growthers had no respect for anyone who wasn’t on their level; it came with the territory.
Then she was out of pedestrianised zone and into a street packed with bikes, boards and shuttles. Motors whining, lightwalls glowing. ‘Gravemaker,’ said a hypnotic voice. ‘Unwind the mortal coil and drift into the Eternal. Apply today, expire tomorrow.’ A woman sitting in her own filth raised a cracked tablet and begged for neweuro. A man, naked from the waist up to show off a designer body, called out to her. ‘How much for an hour, obsol?’
She continued on, crossing a bridge that had once carried trains across the city but now heaved with bordellos, hookup banks and implant resellers. At the next corner was a bullwagon, dark blue with a wide white stripe down its centre. Three bulls flanked it. Their features, approximately human, were blank, their augmented eyes forever scanning. The inhabitants of the GenuSstadt gave the spot a wide berth and she did, too, slipping back into the warren where no transports were allowed. Not that she could lose herself in here; cameras were everywhere, recording everything. Still men kept looking her over, leering, approaching. ‘Come with me, lost one,’ said a religious head who walked beside her for a few paces. ‘Tenfive minutes get you threeten,’ said another. A rail-thin kid wearing a cracked technicolour jacket brushed past, his message delivered in a whisper. ‘Cybins, blitz, krokodil, salts.’
She ducked into an unlit alley clogged with refuse, kicking aside paper, plastic, rags, things that had once had a purpose, until darkness shrouded her. She stopped. No mutters of human beings living in the waste. No sounds of pursuit. If anyone had seen her enter the alley, they hadn’t trusted themselves to follow. Dizziness hit and she fell against a wall splashed with anti-gov graffiti. She sucked in dirty air, overcame her desire to empty her stomach. Far above, an air conditioning unit spat condensation.
They must have found the body by now, and the bull unit responsible for the Mardi Marquis would be running the vidlink. They would identify her and if it turned out she hadn’t killed him in self-defence then she’d be scooped, wiped and pressed into HPU servitude alongside the other perps underneath Potsdamer Platz before morning. She thought back, but her first memory was of her standing over the man. No way to know without seeing the footage for herself. In a panic, she rubbed at her hand where the blood had dried. She’d have to go underground. And then? Find a surgeon willing to work for the scant neweuro she could scrounge, have them put her under the scalpel and cut her until she couldn’t be recognised by sight. What about prints? Eye veins? Hand geometry? She couldn’t afford work like that. Few could.
She tried to get online again, but the response was the same as before. She balled her wrinkled hands, pressed them against her stomach to stop the nausea. Then she rested against the cool brick, concentrated on the dripping of the air con unit. Get a grip or you’ve already lost. Remember who you are.
Your name is Mara Kinzig. You’ve been dreaming in a tank.
Now you’re awake.
And you’re a killer.