The Babylon Eye: Sample

 

Copyright 2016 Masha du Toit

 

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Chapter 1
Lost Dog


The dog lay, listening. The hunters were close now, so close she could hear them breathing. Smell them too. Scent of coffee and the sweet stuff they chewed.

Two, as always. Male and female. Male moved angrily, spoke angrily. “That thing can’t still be alive—”

“Look.” The female was angry too but her voice was softer. “ If you can’t keep your trap shut, go away and leave this to me. That dog can hear your whining a mile away.”

Their footsteps went past but the dog didn’t move. She knew all the tricks. They could pretend to go and circle back when she came out of hiding… The voices were distant now. Going up the stairs.

Her belly ached with hunger. Soon she’d have to emerge from her hiding place to look for food.

She could smell something interesting close by. Old food. Rubbish. Ben wouldn’t like her eating that. He would say No, girl! and look at her, stern and disappointed, make her want to tuck her tail between her legs and crouch down low.

Not that Ben ever hurt her.

The only good food was food from Ben. But Ben was gone. Forever gone. And if she didn’t eat she’d die. Her body was growing weak. Cold and hunger slowed her wits. She would make a mistake, the hunters would trap her and that would be the end.

If Ben were here he would tell her, “Guard them, girl!” and “Packen!” She’d be the hunter, they the prey.

After a long, silent time, the dog crawled out of hiding and stood listening, ears swivelling, nose up, testing the air.

The hunters were far away. She was safe.

Until they came again.

Chapter 2

The Bargain


Elke Veraart leaned against the bars of her cell and watched the guards approach. It was Uys, a big, slow woman who didn’t usually make trouble and Sandy, who was fine as long as you didn’t get her on a bad day.

“Veraart!” said Uys, a little out of breath from the stairs. “You got a visitor. We’re taking you down there.” She unclipped the keys from her belt. “Stand back, now.”

Elke moved to the back of the cell as Uys unlocked the gate. Hands in sight, eyes lowered. She’d learnt her manners by now.

“Come along.”

They took her down to the visitor centre and into one of the interview rooms. Then, to her surprise, both guards left, closing the door behind them.

What’s going on here?

Her visitor, a man in a crumpled suit, was leaning against the table. A cop—there was no mistaking it—he looked at her in that cop way. Taking it all in, slotting her into the available categories. What would he make of her? Female. Mid to late forties. One point six metres. Visible body modifications—

“Morning, Miss E.”

His voice brought recognition. Inspecteur Ncita. He looked different out of uniform and it was three, four years since she’d met anyone from the gardag unit. That was all gone. Another life. But here he was, her old boss, large as life and she could not think of a single reason to explain his presence.

“Have a seat.” Ncita took out a box of cigarettes. “You still not smoking?”

She shook her head.

He sighed and put the box away. “I should stop. I did for a while.”

Elke pulled out a chair and sat, uncomfortably aware of her unwashed hair and the baggy prison uniform. He must have bribed the guards to leave us alone in here. “So,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “I hear you got involved with that gardag flick.”

“That’s right!” Ncita seemed relieved at the safe topic. “The movie. Consulting. They said I might get a part, but I don’t know. Mostly it was helping them get the facts right.”

“If the movie’s anything like the book, they won’t worry too much about the facts.”

“Oh well.” Ncita seemed pleased as well as a bit embarrassed. “It’s entertainment, you know. Give people what they like. But I tell you it’s causing a headache at the unit. Some woman writes a book about gardags, that’s bad enough. Here comes the movie and everyone now wants to be a gardag handler. Recruits signing up in droves. Drives old Platsak nuts.”

Elke had to smile at that. “Platsak still there?”

“Oh yes. Don’t think he’ll ever retire. Puts the new recruits through hell and back. But listen. Here for a reason.” Ncita opened his shoulder bag. “Show you something.” He pulled out a pocket screen, flipped it open and held it first at arm’s length, then close to his face. “Where’s the damn— Oh yes. Okay, which one was it now? That’s it.”

He handed her the screen. “No sound, sorry. Something went wrong with it.”

A vid was playing on the screen, the kind she’d seen countless times before. It showed one of the gardag unit’s training rooms. Somebody was working an advanced obstacle course.

But that’s no gardag.

The dog making its way over, through and under the obstacles was a normal dog. No armour. No visible modifications. Like a German shepherd, but white. Female and on the small side—a pretty enough creature. Elke glanced questioningly at Ncita.

“Keep watching,” he said and took out the cigarettes again.

The dog was good, Elke had to admit that much. It had grace and power, clearing each obstacle with ease. It also had the total focus on its handler that she loved to see. Ears pricked, eyes bright. The sight of that look from dog to handler was unexpectedly painful. The easy communication, the perfect, wordless understanding.

Griffin. Griffin had been like that. But Griffin had been a gardag—a hulking armoured beast with who knows what mix of street breeds. Nothing like this pretty white pedigree lady-dog.

But she was good, this dog. No denying it.

The vid changed to a head-mounted view. Somebody working their way through a fieldwork setup inside a burnt-out building, smoke obscuring the camera. Small, confined spaces and Elke did not need the sound to know the level of noise there’d be. Rattles and bangs, people shouting, gunshots, all to test the dog’s nerve.

Elke watched, fascinated, as the dog took down a padded suspect, indicated the correct container, clawed her way up a slope that no dog should be able to scale and paused at the top. A glance back at her handler, proud, all confidence, never once losing focus. The screen went black and then to the Eckzahn logo.

Elke handed the screen back to Ncita, eyebrows raised. “What was that?”

“Interesting, hey?” Ncita drew on his cigarette, looked around for an ashtray. “That is our new-model gardag. No external armour. Still a tech-enhanced mech-dog. Mind-link capacity. Enhanced vision. Audio and video recording. Stops recording if her power source fails like any other gardag, but won’t wipe her data like the older models did, unless, you know, she’s dead. Also, not so dependent on electronics. Most of it's edited in from the genes up. Retractable claws, subdermal flexible armour.”

“Useful.” Elke pointed to a tin on the table and he tapped ash into it.

“Very useful,” he said, taking another pull on the cigarette. “Also, lighter bone density, stronger muscle fibre. You saw her climb? She’s lighter than a normal dog but far stronger, more agile.”

“Need weight in a fight, though.”

Ncita shrugged. “She can fight if she needs to. Not like your old boy, though. There’ll never be another one like Griffin.”

Elke shifted uncomfortably in her chair, wanting to change the subject. “So why are you showing me?”

“You saw the handler there?” said Ncita. “I don’t think you know him. Hoofdagent Duram. He and the dog—Meisje, she’s called—were assigned on a job in the Babylon Eye.”

Elke looked at Ncita in surprise. “Isn’t that—like—illegal?”

Ncita gave a grim chuckle. “Or something. We’ve never been allowed in there before, that’s for certain. Anyway, the higher-ups at Torka needed something looked into and pulled some strings. Somebody liked the idea of getting a gardag in there, especially one that can operate with no power.”

“I can see that.”

The Babylon Eye was well known for messing with anything electronic. Or so she’d heard. “So, an undercover job?”

Ncita nodded. “What I know is this. Some strange things turned up in the Eye. Torka wanted to know more. Ben Duram and his dog were assigned customs duty there. Nobody needed to know the dog’s a gardag. Seemed fool proof.”

“And then?”

“They disappeared. Handler and dog, both.”

“They disappeared in the Eye?”

“That’s what it looks like.”

“But don’t you have a feed from the dog? Tracking?” Elke leaned forward, interested despite herself.

Ncita blew out a stream of smoke. “That buggering Eye numbs all our tech. The tracking gear works some of the time. But then it fails. We sent a team in there, they pinged her, but then the signal fails again. No good.”

“You think they’re still alive?”

“We don’t know and that’s why I’m here. We need somebody with gardag experience who can go in there and get that dog back.”

“Get the dog. What about the handler?”

“After a week, no contact, I doubt that Duram is still alive.”

Elke sat quietly for a moment, thinking about it. Pieces were missing, that was clear. Big pieces. “And what about—” She gestured at her prison uniform.

Ncita nodded. “We’ve got some high-ups in Torka very keen to get that dog back. We can spring you out of here for as long as the job takes. They’ve got an offer for you.” He tapped more ash off his cigarette. “Boils down to this. You get that dog, dead or alive. They’ll commute your sentence to time already served. Also, wipe your record. Clean slate.”

That silenced her. Clean slate. No criminal record. Ncita was offering her a future that was impossible to imagine. Too good to be true. What’s the catch? “How will they manage that?” She frowned. “Does Torka have that much pull?”

Ncita coughed into his fist. “They don’t need much pull for that. Pay for a good lawyer, that’s all it will take. In fact, I don’t understand why you didn’t fight the charges harder yourself. Trashing a restaurant hardly seems like enough to justify years in jail.”

“That wasn’t why—”

“I know. You broke somebody’s arm—”

“—and the terms of a suspended sentence.”

“A suspended sentence from when you were, what? Seventeen?” Ncita snorted. “And even then, all they had on you is that you ran with the Rent.”

His words gave her a jolt of surprise. In all the years she’d worked for him in the gardag unit, Ncita had never mentioned her past. He must guess why she hadn’t fought the sentence. Same reason I quit the unit. The truth is, that after Griffin died, I just didn’t give a damn.

Elke drew up her shoulders. “It was a bit more than that. But whatever, anyway, for this job, why pick me?”

“That’s easy,” said Ncita. “You’re the best.”

“Respectfully, sir, bullshit. Why me?”

Ncita smiled, eyes narrowed against the cigarette smoke. “Part of it is we need somebody who doesn’t look like a cop.”

That twisted a smile out of her. “That fits.” She touched the teardrop tattoo on her cheek, the all-too-visible legacy of her time with the Rent. That had turned out to be a distinct advantage in prison. Even the most hardened inmates respected the notorious eco gang. Then there were her horns, straight and sharp. She’d kept those filed down to nubs during the years she’d worked as a gardag handler with the Egoli police, but her horns had grown out all the way now.

“And if I fail?”

Ncita blew out a stream of smoke and watched it curl. He didn’t need to say anything. If she failed, she’d be back here serving out the rest of her sentence at the Jacaranda Female Correctional Facility.

“So how’s it going to work?” she asked.

“You’ll have to wear an ankle bracelet. Keep track of you in case you do a runner. They’ll assign a believable job for you to do in the Eye. You’ll report to some local Torka agent on your progress in tracking the dog.”

Elke swallowed. She was getting out. And what then? The thought frightened her. Maybe it was no accident she’d ended up in prison. It had felt so inevitable. No more decisions, just survival, day after day, safely numb.

Inspecteur Ncita stood up from the table. “And it’s not bullshit, by the way. You are the best gardag handler. I put your name forward for a reason.”

“Not the first time you save my ass, Inspecteur.”

“Not the first.”

☆★☆

The dog squeezed through a gap in the wall. First just her head and shoulders. Ears swivelling, sniffing. Kitchen-garden-garbage smells. Nobody dangerous.

People had been near earlier. Not the two that hunted her. Others.

Movement nearby.

The dog froze, heart accelerating, ears and eyes focused. Hearing and sight sharpened till she could hear the tiny heartbeat, see the heat signal. Small body. Glint of eye. Scuttle and gone.

Mouse.

She slid through the gap and nosed about, still alert for any sound. Many smells here. Old, musty, sharp sour. She wolfed down vegetable peelings and a lump of ancient bread.

Mouse would taste better.

☆★☆

Elke leaned into the curve, careful to keep her distance from the bikes in front and behind. She glanced over her shoulder. Agent Modise again, giving her a thumbs up. He was probably grinning but she couldn’t see his face through the visor. A friendly guy, but he’d not hesitate to gun her down if she tried to make a getaway.

Or maybe they’d let her go and hunt her down at leisure, tracking her by the bracelet that fitted so snugly around her ankle. In any case, she wouldn’t get far in the Karoo with no food or water.

The bikes had to dodge and weave to avoid potholes and every so often they were forced off the road when a donga gaped across its whole width. The cops took it in their stride. Apparently this trip between Egoli and Kaapstadt was a regular thing for them—guarding the intercity solar trucks and tourist buses.

Elke looked up at the towering clouds in the blue desert sky. Just last night she’d been in her cell, listening to her neighbour mumbling in her sleep. Now she was speeding down the N1 on some cop’s bike, wearing the clothes she’d checked in with more than eighteen months ago. That was something to luxuriate in, the fact of wearing her own clothes, creased and smelling of prison laundry as they were.

She had her boots back too. Elke grinned. Ridiculous how that cheered her, getting her boots back. They were her one extravagance. Real leather, upholstery liberated from some rich man’s car. Made by a friend back in the days she still had friends.

This very road must once have been full of cars like that. She’d seen the pictures. Insane. Herds of metal-and-plastic beasts, rows and rows of them all the way to the horizon, clouding everything with their exhaust. Never again. That time was past, although traces remained. Every now and then the convoy of bikes passed the burnt-out husks of petrol stations. Some had been upgraded to charging stations with wind turbines and solar panels, but most were abandoned reminders of the days before the change.

It felt good to be moving again after the long months of enforced inaction in Jacaranda. The bike roared beneath her. Wisps of her hair had come loose and whipped behind her. The cops had been unable to find a helmet that would fit over her horns. All she wore was a pair of goggles. She was glad enough of those after hours on the dusty road.

It would be another day, at least, before they arrived in Kaapstadt. Then, she hoped, she’d be properly briefed about Hoofdagent Ben Duram and his dog, and about the Babylon Eye.

The Babylon Eye. Portal between the worlds. A conduit for trade, a sort of harbour that existed—she had no idea how—in the abyss between the real world and the strange. The entrance to the Eye was somewhere off the southern coast of Nieu Batavia, not far from the place she’d been born and spent her childhood.

She’d seen strangers, if only from a distance. Stranger tech was a part of everyday life these days. The gardag project was an example, a perfect blend of real-world expertise with mechanical things and the strangers’ skill with genetic engineering and surgery. Editing and pruning, they called it. Stranger tech made possible the armoured mech-dogs to which she’d devoted so much of her life.

Her horns were stranger tech as well, although when she’d had the buds implanted, she’d been a teenager more concerned with earning her place in the Rent gang than in the origin of the body mods.

Some people blamed everything that was wrong these days on the arrival of the strangers, but Elke always thought that things would have changed whether or not contact had been made. Humanity was quite capable of driving their world to the brink of destruction without any stranger help. The strangers hadn’t caused the energy crisis or broken the weather. All that had happened long before they showed up.

One advantage of her years with the eco gang: a thorough education in the harm rapacious humanity had done to their world. The Rent had extreme ideas of how that damage should be repaired, but there was no denying they were right about the cause of it all.

She steered to avoid another pothole then saw that their leader was signalling to pull into one of the charging stations. As they slowed to a halt, agent Modise pulled up next to her and took off his helmet.

“Phew.” He wiped a sleeve over his sweating face, widening his eyes at her. Then he turned to get a water bottle from his saddlebag and handed it to her.

Not a bad guy, Modise.

☆★☆

The road surface improved as they approached Kaapstadt and by the time they were within sight of Table Mountain, they no longer had the road to themselves. On the outskirts of the city where the N1 cut through smallholdings and farms, they had to slow to accommodate local traffic. Bicycles, dogs, straying cattle and the farm carts taking produce to their customers in the grid.

Elke was glad to slow down, bone tired from the journey and reluctant to reach its destination. She had left Kaapstadt when she was barely thirteen and had not planned to return. But, as they drew nearer to the grid, the areas she’d known as a child, she couldn’t help looking around with interest. Some things had not changed.

Elke smiled up at the overpass bearing graffiti she herself had painted so many years ago, before she’d had the right to do it. Metre-high black lettering frowned down at the traffic passing underneath: The Rent Is Due. Below that in a more recent addition, somebody had scrawled: And who will pay the debts of the dead?

The wrecked cars that had lined the roads were almost all gone. Looted out, she supposed, recycled down to the bare metal of their chassis, then chopped up and carted away. The traffic was as crazy as she remembered. There seemed to be a fashion for immensely long skateboards—that was new. She even spotted a rickshaw or two among the normal mix of bicycles and motorbikes.

The air was tainted with the stench of burnt plastic. Despite the forest of wind turbines and the solar panels on every roof, there were still people who cooked their food by burning garbage gathered from the local dump. The hammering roar of a petrol-driven generator cut through the traffic noise. A local gang boss showing off his conspicuous consumption of the precious fuel.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

At a signal from the biker in the lead, the convoy slowed and turned into a gate with the Eckzahn logo. They had arrived, at last.

☆★☆

The hunters came again, making her go into the cold, narrow place up under the pipes. One of them opened a hatch. Close. The dog could see the shadow, cast by the light outside. Not moving. Listening.

It was the female. Coffee smell, toothpaste, sweat. She was the dangerous one. The one who wouldn’t give up. The male was angry, impatient, but this one kept coming back.

The shadow moved. The door closed. The listening continued, the dog could feel it. She lay, eyes closed, waiting, perfectly still except for the shivers she was unable to suppress. Cold here. Cold, cold.

They had guns. She knew they did. The male had shot at her, twice, after Ben—

After Ben went away.

Two shots. That had shocked her sane, driven her back into the tunnels, started this endless game of predator and prey. Hunger had drained her strength away. She couldn’t take them on now, even if she’d wanted to.

The shadow moved, the hatch closed, softly. It was a long time before she heard their footsteps receding.

☆★☆

“This is as far as I go.” Modise stood at the head of the stairway that led down into the Ishtar gate’s loading zone. The weather had turned cold and only a little pale sunlight filtered through the low clouds. The sea was a sulky grey and the shore was hardly visible through the mist. A bell clanged and the boat that had brought them to the gate made ready to cast off.

“I can’t go any further with you.” Modise thumped her gently on the shoulder. “You be careful in there, right? I’ve heard some stories about that place. Watch yourself.”

Elke smiled at his earnest expression. Modise was easy to like. He’d been a rare calm presence during the past few days. He treated her like a younger sister, even though she was almost old enough to be his mother.

Things had been uncomfortable and disorienting. Long periods of waiting in hotel rooms and offices interspersed with intense activity. The briefing had not taken long—they had given her only the minimum of information—but she’d had to study up on the Babylon Eye and stranger customs. Then there was the medical checkup, the most thorough she’d ever had. It had included a shot of some stranger-tech stuff. “To upgrade your interface for the new chip they're giving you,” was all the technician would say.

The new chip was definitely an improvement on the one she’d had when she’d been with the gardag unit. That had been a basic camera and data display. This was a much subtler version of the same, allowing her to capture video and take notes via a combination of subvocal commands and gestures that would not be obvious to any but the most careful observer. Finger twitches, the position of her tongue, the way she tensed her jaw. Much of the last few days had been spent learning to control the thing.

“So—this thing is permanently on?” she’d asked a technician. “You guys will be seeing what I see all the time?” Not a happy thought and, if she’d known about that part ahead of time, she’d probably have balked at the idea. In a way, it was worse than being in prison.

“Not all the time,” the tech had answered. “The Eye does things to our tech. This will all be out of operation at least half the time you are in there, maybe more.”

That was worrying. The Eye was notorious for interfering with real-world tech. Something to do with the waning and waxing influence of the strange world.

“It won’t blow up or fuse or something, will it?” she’d asked, nervously touching the input jack at the base of her skull.

“Shouldn’t,” the tech had said. And that was that. But now Modise was holding out her bag and there was no more putting it off. Through the Ishtar gate she had to go.

“Thanks, man,” she said, taking the bag. “Take care.”

She started down the metal stair, one hand on the rail. The stairs were slippery with sea spray and spits of rain. The platform below came into view and she had to stop to take it all in.

The Ishtar gate had originally been an oil rig but it had been transformed almost beyond recognition to serve its new purpose. The portal— the entrance to the Babylon Eye— was below sea level so the entire Ishtar loading zone was under sea level as well. The gate was like an enormous tank with tall metal walls to keep out the sea, open to the sky. On the far side was the tourist entrance. Elke could see the queues of tourists waiting for the lift that would take them down to the portal level. No such luxury for her. She shifted her bag onto her other shoulder and continued her descent.

The portal came into view—an imposing structure, the colours eye-catching even in the wintry sunlight. Richly coloured ceramic tile covered most of its surface. The mosaic showed a procession of bulls, gold against the deep blue background of what was rumoured to be real lapis lazuli. It was one of the many fancies of Maxwell Jali, the founder and financier of the Ishtar gate and the Babylon Eye beyond it.

At the top was the famous portrait of Maxwell Jali himself. His image smiled down benevolently, teeth impossibly white in his dark face, a storm of stylised dreadlocks surrounding his head like a halo.

The last turn of the stairs took Elke out of sight of the loading zone and the portal. Now she was down among the huge cans that held freight from the strange world. Most of the workers were real-world humans but there were some strangers among them.

Unlike most of the ones she’d seen before, these strangers didn’t wear facemasks or protective clothing. Still, it was easy to pick them out. Apart from their elaborate tattoos, most of them had inhumanly wide shoulders and bulky arms. These must be glims, low-caste strangers edited to do the heavy manual work.

Two figures stood out from the others. Scarlet wrappings hid their necks and the lower parts of their faces. Their skin, what could be seen of it, was untattooed and grub-white, their hair dark and matted. One carried a bag; the other swept up bits of rubbish. Elke tried not to stare as she walked past.

Weeds. She’d never seen them before. Only news footage of the rows of pathetic burnt or strung-up bodies. They had many names. The ungezahmt. Drekkers. Grubs. Blanks. Vullis. Smears. Slugmen. Spreaders of disease and filth, if you believed the rumours. One of the weeds gave her a dark-eyed glance before stepping between a row of cans and out of her sight.

They do look like real humans, Elke thought with a shudder. Except for that pale skin and even that’s not so different. No wonder people freak out. You want to know what you’re dealing with.

But watching the weeds had made her lose her way. She wandered among the cans, looking for a sign to show her which way she was supposed to go. Some way further a scarred brick wall caught her eye.

Were those bullet holes?

“Yep, that’s the execution wall,” said a worker behind her. He grinned. “Anyone caught smuggling in the Eye, they bring them out here and—” He mimed a rifle shot. “Don’t worry, they don’t use it too often. You new here? You’ll be needing the B walkway.”

Elke followed the man’s directions and joined the workers queuing to go into the Eye. The tourists, she saw, were on a walkway above them, which probably provided a better view of the activity in the loading zone. From where she was, Elke could hear bangs, clangs and loud hissings she guessed must be the train that would take the goods from the real world into the Eye and, eventually, through another portal in the far side of the Eye, into the strange world.

The queue drew up to a checkpoint where a guard questioned people and examined their papers. Elke patted her pocket to reassure herself that her identification documents were still there.

“Maxwell Jali,” said an amplified voice from the tourist platform above. “The man responsible for the existence of the entire Ishtar gate complex as well as the Eye. It was his vision that made it all possible. He was the one who was willing to listen to the geist, the first strangers to arrive on our shores almost eighty years ago and to believe the story of their strange journey. He was able to turn his considerable wealth and influence to building the structure that would become a permanent gate between their world and ours…”

A woman in front of Elke snorted. “You hear that?” she said to her companion. Both of them wore green shifts and stained white aprons. Kitchen workers of some kind. “They make him sound like he was some kind of great leader.”

“Well, they can’t very well tell the tourists that he was a gangster, can they?”

“Piracy is what I heard,” said the first woman. “Wasn’t he a poacher? Selling off endangered species to the Asians. Abalone. That kind of thing.”

“…our benefactor,” continued the amplified tour guide. “What is more, it was Mr Jali’s foresight that was responsible for installing several enormous windows in the Eye, huge viewports that look out on both the real world and the strange. These windows are what elevates the Babylon Eye above the commercial transactions that define Bifrost and other gates that were later put into place. Some say that it is because of these windows that the Eye got its name—a place for viewing wonders, the eye in the abyss between worlds…”

Elke had reached the checkpoint. The guard was less human-like than any stranger she’d seen till now. Most strangers were taller than real-world humans and this one had a peculiar rough texture to his skin, a pale sandpaper effect that reminded Elke of sharkskin. His tattoos blurred along the edges like ink on blotting paper. His eyes were odd too, larger than normal and with a third lid that slid upwards between his more ordinary blinks.

Elke studied him curiously. This was the closest she’d ever been to a glim. And he must be a glim. Definitely not a geist or an eidolon—those were both high-ranking stranger castes unlikely to be doing this kind of duty. The eyes were probably an edit that made him more efficient at his job, gave him access to enhanced vision of some kind.

“Welcome to the Babylon Eye,” said the voice of a young, upper-class Anglo woman. It took Elke a moment to realise that the voice came from a box strapped to the glim’s chest and that he’d not spoken at all. He moved his large hands over the ranks of buttons and the box voice spoke again. “Can I see your identification, citizen?”

Elke drew out her papers and the glim glanced over them. Then he reached out, took her gently by the chin and peered into her eyes. “Identification confirmed,” the box said and he released her. “Welcome to the Babylon Eye, mejuffrou Adelheid Veraart.”

The glim’s fingers moved into a new position on the box. “This is your first visit to the Eye. Are you aware of the terms of the treaty by which the Nieu Batavia Coalition governs here?”

Elke had been prepared for this question. “I am.”

“And you accept that while in the Babylon Eye, you fall under their jurisdiction and will obey the law as defined by the coalition?”

“I do.”

“You claim ownership of everything in your baggage and on your person and are aware of the penalties if contraband should be discovered in your possession?”

This was more worrying. Elke frankly didn’t know the contents of her bag and had to hope that Torka would not be so stupid as to pack anything illegal. “Uh, yes. I do. And I am aware.”

“Very well. Be aware that if, in the first weeks of your residence in the Eye you develop any flu-like symptoms, fever, or hallucinations, you must report to a medic at once.

“Please proceed along the yellow lines on the walkway and wait at the portal for the signal. You will be given ear protection. Please don the ear guards when directed to do so, and not remove them until you have passed through the portal and it has closed behind you. While a single exposure to the carillon may not cause permanent damage, repeated exposure may impede normal function. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You may proceed.”

Elke followed the lines to a conveyor belt, where several guards stood waiting—normal, real-world men with dogs. Two of them were patting people down while the rest chatted. Elke knew, from having done similar duty in the past, that their lack of interest was deceptive. The dogs were normal dogs—highly trained, but not enhanced in any way she could see. They’d be sniffing through the baggage, detecting the finest traces of contraband.

“Step up here, sweetheart,” said one of the men. “You got any weapons?” He passed his hands briskly over her body while his dog sniffed at her knees, then circled around and nosed her left foot.

“No,” she said, trying not to watch the dog. If it sniffs there any longer, this guy is going to realise something’s up. “Am I allowed weapons through here?”

“Nope,” said the man, stepping back. His dog had lost interest in Elke’s foot. With some relief, she gave her bag to another glim, a muscular woman whose arms seemed long in proportion to her body. She handled the heavy bag with ease, hefting it one handed onto a conveyor belt. “Hope nothing delicate here.” She spoke without the aid of a voice box. Her accent was strong but perfectly understandable.

“Why? What do they do to it?” said Elke.

“Decon. They sterilise her. Don’t watch that, nothing get hurt ’cept maybe paper. Here.” She handed Elke the ear protection. “Once you are through the showers, put these on. Eye on the guide, or you’ll miss the signal. Can’t hear much with these.”

And then, with a glance at the tourists passing by above them, she said with an exaggerated accent: “Don these, mam-san, yo ears be blind, ya know?” She gave fake smile and turned to the next person in line, reaching for their bag.

What was that about?

Elke followed the queue to where a man—another perfectly normal, real-world man, as far as she could tell—stood by a double door. She walked past him and into a long, narrow, low-ceilinged corridor that had walls studded with several rows of clothes hooks. The tiled floor slanted down to a drain on one side. Elke glanced apprehensively up and, sure enough, there was a row of nozzles in the ceilings.

The room became crowded as the queue shuffled in. Most people wore overalls or uniforms of some kind. They seemed relaxed, chatting and complaining with the slightly bored air of commuters on the way to work.

“Last one in,” somebody called then the doors closed. “Right, guys,” said a man by the entrance. “You know the drill. Outerwear off. Strip down to your tighty whiteys. Hang your garments on the hooks, shoes against the wall.”

Everyone started undressing so Elke followed suit. It was difficult to get undressed without bumping into people.

“Boots too?” Elke asked her neighbour, a plump, older woman who was unbuttoning a white chef’s uniform. “Yes, sweetheart,” said the woman. “Here, let me help you.”

She held Elke’s elbow while she balanced to pull off first one boot, then the other. “And your socks,” said the woman. “They like you to expose as much skin as you can.”

The tiles were cold under her bare feet and Elke shivered a little, standing there in her bra and panties. She couldn’t help wishing that it was possible to remove the slim little tracker anklet— Somehow, she didn’t like it being visible to all these strangers.

“First time in the steriliser?” said the woman. “Don’t worry, it’s like a mist. But close your eyes and your mouth. Stuff tastes nasty.”

“Do they make the tourists do this too?”

The woman laughed. “Not they. Or anyway, they get to keep their clothes on while they’re misted. The longer stays, they each get a private cubicle. Or so I’ve heard.”

Makes sense, I suppose. What with bone flu and all the other bugs and things getting from one world to the other.

A bell rang followed by a hissing from above. Elke closed her eyes. The air filled with a chemical tang and she felt the touch of spray on her face and shoulders. When she opened her eyes, everybody was getting dressed again. Her skin was covered with a damp film, enough to make her clothes stick. She put her trousers on without too much trouble then sat down to pull on her boots. The level of conversation was louder now, people joking and shouting remarks back and forth.

“Time,” said an amplified voice. “Portal opening, three minutes and counting.”

Elke stood and pulled her shirt on over her head, not bothering to unbutton it first.

“Watch it, you’ll tear that. Here, let me—” Somebody helped to ease the fabric over her horns which had, inevitably, snagged the shirt. Elke pulled the shirt down and tucked it in. Her assistant was not the chef, as she’d assumed, but a tough-looking young woman, dark skinned, with military-short hair. “That must be a bugger when you’re in a hurry,” the woman said, looking at Elke’s horns. “Cool look, though.” She stuck out her hand. “Hi. I’m Skyler Moraes.”

“Hi.” Elke shook the offered hand. “Elke Veraart.” Then she wondered if she should have given her name. Still, Torka had not given her a new identity, so maybe it didn’t matter.

“Pleased to meet you,” said Moraes. “You’re new. What’s your business on the Eye?” The question was blunt but Moraes’s smile took the edge off it and Elke found herself smiling in return. “Got a job down below. Mechanics.” Elke hoped she’d remembered the right terminology.

“Well, good,” said Moraes. “I hear there’s always stuff needs doing down on the Works level. Well, we should be putting in the earplugs in now. They’re about to open the portal. Chat later.”

☆★☆

Elke had hoped to see the portal in operation but that was clearly a tourist privilege. All she saw was a corridor with a reinforced door at its end. After a minute or so of waiting, the lights dimmed and flashed.

She expected to hear something despite the ear protection but was unprepared for the bone deep vibrations that rippled through her. At first it was a simple, rhythmical pulse like a slow heartbeat, then it built into a complex overlapping pattern of pulses and drones that had her staggering where she stood. This, she knew, was the carillon, the instrument that opened the portal into the abyss. Elke copied the people around her, putting her hands over her ears even though the sound was pulsing through every part of her body.

Just as she began to wonder how long it would last, the vibrations settled into a steady drone and the door swung open. She followed the crowd of workers through. There was nothing but the on-going rumble of the carillon drone to mark her passage out of the world and into the abyss. The door swung shut behind them and, after a moment, the drone faded away. She followed the crowd down the corridor that opened onto a wide metal platform edged with brass railings. Elke stared. It’s so big!

Below her stretched a wide concourse. A train stood puffing and steaming. It was just a few carriages long, bearing some of the enormous cans she’d seen in the loading zone outside. Not outside. Through the portal. In the real world. This is going to take some getting used to.

Workers were already busy at the train, hooking crane arms to the cans and directing a second train down the tracks. Elsewhere Elke could see rows of shops, vendors with carts piled high with snacks and trinkets. In among these moved a throng of busy workers, most on foot but here and there a swift figure on roller skates or a skateboard.

The workers who had accompanied her through the portal were already dispersing and she saw with a pang that the friendly Moraes was striding purposefully away down the stairs. She seemed nice. But maybe I should be careful with whom I connect, in here. Not supposed to be drawing attention to myself after all.

Belatedly she realised that she still had the earplugs in. She took them out and was engulfed in the echoing, humming roar of the place. The noise of the crowd below, the puff-puff-puff of the train, the creaking clang of the cans unloading and the rapid swing-beat of music from unseen speakers far above.

And somewhere, in all of this, is a missing dog. Her task suddenly seemed overwhelming.

“…the Babylon Eye, ladies and gentlemen.”

It was the tour guide again. The tourist party had emerged on a gallery above.

“The Eye, though constructed almost eighty years ago, is still a marvel of modern engineering. What you see before you is Mid Level, also called level Zero. Most of the sights we will see today are on this level.

“There are three levels below this and two above. The lower levels are used for utilitarian purposes—worker dormitories, storage, life support systems and so forth. When we move further forward, you’ll see the garden and residential levels above—”

Elke did not stay to hear any more. She’d spotted her next destination, a big sign that said “Customs”.

☆★☆

Bag collected, papers stamped, Elke was sent to join another queue at a counter manned by several skinny glims. These creatures were fascinating to watch, lightning fast, almost robot-like in their precision. None of them spoke. They glanced over paperwork, fed documents into a bewildering array of—as far as Elke could see—unlabelled slots, cranked wheels and drew levers. They pulled papers from between rollers, folded them and tucked them into containers that were plugged and dispatched down the correct tube with a pneumatic hiss.

The clockwork mechanism puzzled her until she considered that this place must function, at least part of the time, with no electricity.

And how do I know when that’s happening? Presumably not right at the moment—she could still hear recorded music. It sounded far too tinny to be live. What do they do for lights when there’s no power? There were lit panels above the counter. They didn’t look like electric lights, the colour was subtly wrong. But what else could they be?

When Elke’s turn came, her documents were plucked from her fingers, rapidly processed and returned, complete with a new, glossy little book with her name stamped on the cover.

“Uh. Where should I go next?” Elke couldn’t see the glim’s eyes through the multiple lenses of his goggles. She wasn’t even sure if it was a “he”. The glim flipped open the book and pointed impatiently at the first page.

Clothing and equipment: Level-1 Short Storage Track D 56

Dormitory: Level -2 Long Storage 34Roost Cub86A

Supervisor: Mnr L B Sparks Level-1 Short Storage Track S 89

“Do you have something like a map of the place?”

But he’d already turned away.

☆★☆

Another queue later, her bag was heavier with the addition of several sets of overalls, a pair of steel-capped safety shoes, a pair of rubber boots and various other odds and ends. She’d found a map and tracked down the real-side stairway to the lower levels. The map was actually not much help, as most of the labels were printed in stranger script.

After some time wandering about, it was a relief to see a big, bold sign that said Short Storage, Long Storage with an arrow pointing the way. By now she’d seen such a bewildering range of corridors, walkways, hatches, stairs, and cubicles that she found it easy to believe that a dog could be lost in this maze.

She went down two levels to Long Storage, where her sleeping quarters were supposed to be. The floor on this level was concrete, polished with the passage of many feet. Here and there ran rails almost flush with the ground and everywhere were rows upon rows of the giant freight cans.

She followed the flow of people, most of whom were going in the same direction. There was an end-of-day feel to it all. People talked and laughed among themselves, pausing for a chat with an acquaintance or strolling arms linked with a friend. They were a mix of reals and strangers. Most of the reals spoke a kind of creole slang of which Elke understood a word here and there, but the clicks and yawns of the strangers’ talk made no sense to her at all.

At last she came to what she was looking for, the roosts. These were the worker dormitories. Somewhere in there was the cubby that would be her home for the duration of her stay. She glanced at her little book.

34Roost Cub86A

The roosts were tall structures that reminded her of oversized bookshelves. They must once have been neat and ordered, but nearly eight decades of a variety of occupants had left their mark. Each cubby had been painted, scoured, dented, polished or left to rust. Some had extra windows, and some had shelves and storage bins bolted on.

After some trial and error, she found the correct roost. Cubby 86A was at ground level. She let her bag drop with relief.

So this is it. Well, I’ve slept in worse places. The front of the cubby, a brown enamelled metal, was decorated with layer upon layer of stick-ons that looked as though they’d glow in the dark. Through the tiny porthole was a glimpse of white lace curtain. Elke resisted the impulse to double check the number. No doubt about it, this was the right address.

It looks kind of occupied, though.

Should she knock? That felt foolish. Elke took hold of the door handle and pulled it open. She found herself nose to nose with the biggest glim she’d yet seen, a pin-eyed brute with a jaw like a bulldozer. He spoke with forceful precision, “Fook off, blank arse,” and closed the door in her face.

Elke stared at the door. Now what? There must have been some administrative mix-up. She didn’t rate her chances if she knocked at that door again so her only choice was a trek up the stairs again and with her luck, the offices were probably closed by now. What time is it? And how do you tell the time, in here? With a sigh, she shouldered her bag again.

“Excuse me.”

A man stood nearby, watching. A reals man and one that looked, after all the tattooed glims she’d been seeing, remarkably out of place. Pale skin, round shouldered, with a neat office-man haircut. He was young and wore office clothes, grey trousers and a pale blue shirt. He wasn’t looking quite at her and for a moment Elke wondered if he was talking to her after all.

“Excuse me,” he said again and moved a few steps closer.

“Hi,” said Elke warily.

He seemed perfectly harmless but this was hardly a normal situation.

“You’re new here, aren’t you,” said the man. “Hi, I’m Otto Landseer. I work up on Gardens. I work with the codes. You are new here.”

“I am,” Elke agreed.

There was something a little odd about Otto.

“You looking for your cubby?” He gazed vaguely in the mid distance then shot her a furtive, brightly curious glance.

“That’s right. I’m supposed to be in this one but it looks like there’s somebody in there already.”

Otto nodded. “You are correct. The cubby is occupied. Diesel says it does happen, that people do that. Diesel says that people will see that a cubby is unoccupied, especially a nice ground level one like that and they move in. It’s not right.” Another furtive glance, this time almost meeting her eye.

“No. But what can I do?” said Elke. “I guess I’ll have to go upstairs again. See if I can sort it out.”

But Otto was already shaking his head. “Oh, no. Those offices are already closed. No good going back up there. Are you looking for a cubby?”

Elke hesitated, not sure what he meant. Otto was clearly not precisely like other people and he might be operating on a loop. Was the conversation back where they’d started? But it seemed she’d misjudged him.

“There are some cubbies further along,” he clarified. “Empty ones. Top row. You can move in there. Diesel says they have not been occupied for quite some time. What is your name?” He was almost looking her in the face now. He had one hand up, touching the spot on his head that corresponded with the place her horns sprouted.

“I’m Elke,” said Elke. “You’re sure? About the cubby?”

“Yes,” said Otto. And without another word, he turned and walked away. After a moment, Elke followed.

☆★☆

The cubby Otto found her wasn’t at all bad. It was four shelves up and right near the ceiling, but Elke didn’t mind that. This roost was away from the main walkway and far from the communal washrooms, which went some way to explaining why most of its cubbies were unoccupied.

The cubby was not exactly empty. It was full of boxes. “Diesel’s boxes,” which suggested that Diesel was a person and not some deity that Otto called on.

Otto helped her move the boxes into a neighbouring cubby and showed her how to lock her door. “And a bolt on the inside. Diesel says it would take a freight glim to break it open, once the bolt is shot.”

He also showed her how to slide open the little cover to expose the perpetually glowing collstones that were the light source in the cubby.

That had made her stare. In the real colls were exotic stranger-tech, luxury items to be seen on upmarket restaurant tables or in private residences in the safe zone. Still—explains how they light this place. Colls don’t need electricity, after all.

Otto was helpful but also difficult to get rid of. He didn’t seem to pick up on body language and was clearly utterly unaware that she might not be comfortable with him going into the cubby with her, actually scooting right up onto the bed so that he could point out the fact that the side panels that separated the cubby from its neighbours were not at all secure.

“Look,” he banged on the panel near the head of the bed. “All you have to do is take out these screws and there’ll be a hole right into the next cubby. You’ll need to do a bit of welding to make it secure. All the older ones are like this.” He was quite ready to help her fix it on the spot, especially when he discovered that she was going to work in mechanics.

“No, Otto, not now,” she said firmly. “I don’t have my tools yet, right?”

That finally convinced him. “Oh,” he said. “Okay. But don’t do anything yourself. I’ll show you how.”

She promised, expecting him to put up further resistance but with an abrupt “Bye!” he was down the ladder and gone.

Outside the light had definitely dimmed. Being so close to the ceiling she could see that the lights outside were colls too and that their dimming was achieved by sliding panels that obscured their glow. She could see lights from some of the other roosts too, hear music and voices. But no cooking smells.

“Damn.” She’d forgotten to ask Otto about eating arrangements. There was no place to cook in the cubby, it was smaller even than her prison cell had been. There was a lot of storage space, cleverly set into the walls and under the bed, but nothing like a kitchen. And, of course, she had no food. No bedding either, but it was not likely to get cold here. She might as well get settled in.

Her stuff was soon unpacked and put away. One item she pulled out of the lining of the bag, where it had been stitched into a hidden compartment—a small, black rectangle on a cord. Put it ’round your neck, they’d said. But only after you are through customs.

She frowned at it. The kill switch. To be used only at last resort. Clip it open, push the right buttons and the dog would die. Not just die, but all the creature’s mech parts fritzed, data wiped.

The device was not new to her. All gardag handlers had one. There was always the chance of a gardag getting into hacker’s hands, of the data they recorded being extracted somehow.

She slipped the cord over her head and tucked the switch down into her shirt. Then she pulled off her boots and inspected the ankle bracelet. Still there. Still impossible to take off. It was a thin band with enough give to it that she could hardly feel it while her boots were on, but not enough to pull off over her foot. She’d tried, on the first night of that bike trip.

No way out but through. Got to find that dog, get this thing off me. One thing at a time, right?

Elke picked up her left boot and flipped it over to examine the heel. This was the first opportunity she’d had of checking it; from the moment she’d left the prison she’d never once been alone, except in the toilet. Even then she had probably been observed.

She checked around the cubby but knew already that there wouldn’t be any cameras. Or none that I can see. But that was paranoia taken too far. How could anyone know which cubby she would choose?

Camera.

She blinked and put the boot down again. They’d given her an upgrade, hadn’t they? She was the camera. She had forgotten about it in all the new sights and sensations. The fact that she herself hadn’t triggered the audio- or video-recorders didn’t mean that she wasn’t recording and broadcasting to whomever could receive it.

And who would that be? Must be somebody here in the Eye. Can’t send a signal from inside the abyss and into the real. That meant there must be a Torka agent in the Eye. Nothing would be more likely.

But what had the tech said? “Remember the Eye does things to our tech. This will all be out of operation at least half the time you are in there, maybe more.”

Slowly, she put her boot back on. She’d just have to wait till she could inspect it unobserved.

In fact, I’ve been a frickin fool. Messing about with a paper map— She blinked the command to bring up the retina display. Cool silver letters scrolled across her vision. Now let’s see. Any chance our lady-dog is in range?

She accessed the tracker function but was not surprised to see that all the numbers were zeroed. Well. It was never going to be that easy. And with all the metal plating in the walls and floors I’ll probably have to get pretty close to her to pick up the signal.

She closed down the tracker and opened the map function. That’s better. Now let’s see if I can find where the food is.

☆★☆

Food.

The dog lifted her nose, scenting.

Meat. Meat-from-a-tin-meat, the kind Ben had often given her. She swallowed saliva. Her belly clenched. The stuff she’d eaten on the garbage pile had come back up, vomited. The food smell was filling her nose, a soft, luscious, compelling, meaty scent.

The hunters were far away, she was certain of that. There had been others, banging and making noise, but they were also gone now. Maybe one of them had dropped this food?

That did happen. She flashed on a memory of following Ben around his kitchen as he prepared a meal, watching every move, dodging his caresses. Food was serious business. How could he joke about it?

And then there was the food ceremony. Every day at the same time. Ben would say, “ Sit, Meisje,” and she’d sit, waiting while he took her bowl and put the food in it. The scent of it would make her salivate and Ben would smile at her. “ Good girl,” he’d say as he put the bowl down. A look and then the “ Okay,” that released her from the sit.

She edged closer. She could see it now. A tin. An open tin. Closer still. She sniffed it.

Coffee. Chew-stuff. And something else, some stench of not-food.

Trap. They’d put it here, the two of them. A quick sniff at the ground confirmed it. Recent presence. The hunters. The food was theirs; she couldn’t trust it.

With one last regretful sniff, the dog turned and faded back into the shadows.

 

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