With her intended business disrupted, the rest of the trip was a bust. Even the rest of the Nightmarket had little worthy of her attentions – a collection of antique picture books, depicting a variety of unusual sexual practices, would probably sell well enough. The guards seemed unsettled, making short, nervous patrols and quietly murmuring to each other, their hands never far from their weapons. Their unease transmitted itself to the traders, who haggled fiercely, or shut up early, fearful of what may be about to happen.
After poking through another pile of useless garbage heaped atop a plasboard market stall, Alice gave up; the night was a bust. The books (now wrapped in several tattered plastic bags) were something, but the atmosphere was febrile and dangerous – something was going to happen, or had already happened, that just wasn’t known yet.
On the way out, one of the traders raised a hand, calling her over.
‘Good to see ya. Slim pickings though, even for those not as discerning as you. I’ve been dead all week – some shit’s gone down in the Heights.’
Alice made a show of looking through his goods – nothing her customers would likely to be interested in, all old clothing and rags. But he was a good informant, despite his missing leg, ripped off during the riots, with a story seemed to change every time; whether his memory was glitched or he was lying, she had never been any to tell. ‘Must be worse than usual. I’ve not seen any of the fancy come to gawk recently.’
He nodded and pulled out a hipflask, swigging back a shot before offering it to Alice. It reeked of strong spirits, his spit shining on the buffed metal. ‘No. I don’t drink. Any idea why? No plague, not heard of any of the gangs starting shit.’
‘No clue. Usual shit from the usual suspects – theft, murder, the Rapture, all that bollocks. Not even the filth seem to know, or they would at least be busting some skulls and throwing some suckers into the cells.’
‘What about the Circle? Anything from them?’
‘That bunch ‘o wankers? Too busy getting themselves off, or paying someone to get them off, to give a shit. Although they’d tell you long before they’d tell old Rackham anything. Not my manor there, not at all. There’s a rumour that the old firm’s involved though. Your old friend was on the prowl earlier. Even asked about you.’
Another burst of cool softness rippled up her spine, flattening out a burst of anger. ‘Crap, you didn’t tell them anything did you?’
‘Nah, I know you don’t like ‘em, and pissin’ you off seems like it could be unhealthy.’
‘Appreciate it. If you see them again, tell them to sod off.’
‘That seems even more unhealthy! I might have lost one leg bravely defending my wife, doesn’t mean I want to lose the other.’ He glanced about himself with excessive showiness, checking no-one is around, waiting until a drone buzzes away, and then whispers. ‘Been passed a message, from an old admirer of yours, they said. Wanted to remain nameless, but I figure there can’t be that many people with gems in their eyes, even in the Uppers.’
He reached into baggy coat, pulling out a bundle of paper – receipts, scribbled notes, a notebook utterly broken and distorted by the amount of stuff pressed between the covers. From somewhere within it, he pulled out a small blue envelope, unmarked but for a blob of wax sealing it shut, stamped with a butterfly. He handed it over. ‘You have some interesting friends. They looked fancy, but I’m guessing that not handing this over would get me in trouble as well.’
‘You guessed right. They’re very big on obedience.’ Alice smooths the letter out, carefully sliding it between the books. ‘Stay safe – I’m heading back, before more shit kicks off.’
‘Heh, any bastard coming for me better be pretty tough. Don’t you worry, I’ll keep on kicking, ‘till this place burns down.’
Alice stepped away. Great, now two people from her past were getting themselves involved again. One excessively violent, the other… she shuddered, before the tension was replaced with a comforting numbness, letting her concentrate as she left the Nightmarket.
It was surrounded by concrete towers, mass produced housing for the teeming masses, never quite finished and covered with graffiti and posters. Anything in reach was boarded up or heavily reinforced, even the higher levels protected in case of those with weapons. Even outside its boundaries, the Nightmarket made its influence felt, the gangers here for trade-business, rather than out for blood. Still, there was no other trade, everyone moving with swift, furtive steps, staying out of the light. Specks moved above her, drones about their business. The ‘Plex never slept, always someone in the sprawling mass out for business, pleasure or both.
There’s a sound behind her, and she spins, just in time to catch a glimpse of movement in the shadows. Here, the only light is the distant reflected city-light, enough to throw everything into gritty shadows. She moves on, senses sharp – again, the sound of leather scraping against a wall. And then someone steps out in front of her – barely a moment to react, as they raise a weapon. Her senses surge, and she reacts, sidestepping as something narrowly misses her, and then attacking. First strike to an eye, soft and weak, followed by a second to the throat, flesh yielding to the sharp tenseness of her attacking fingers. They stagger backwards, already gulping in breath to sob, starting to fall, head dropping. Before they hit the ground, Alice grabs them and twists, throwing them behind her, in the path of any attackers.
Then the usual calming numbness blossoms inside her, before her awareness narrows to an adrenaline fuelled dot. Sounds of footsteps, more, and nearby – time to be gone. She reaches beneath her clothing, finding the familiar controls on the rigid harness she wore, tapping one repeatedly. The calmness faded slightly, her heartrate starting to accelerate, adrenaline pouring into her. The temptation to turn, find whoever the dumb fucks are and tear them, rip them, break them, is strong, but she resists it. Instead she runs further into the maze of alleys, eyes scanning above her. There – an old AC unit, near a dangling fire escape, about 10 feet above the ground. She leaps, finding purchase on the pitted concrete, using her power to push back off the wall, managing to reach it, pull herself up onto it.
The metal starts to screech beneath her, pulling away from the wall under even her slight weight. She jumps again, grabbing hold of the ladder and climbing up, as the metal box falls to the floor, sadly missing someone. They look up, face a pale blur in the low light as she climbs upwards. When she next glances down, she watches them crumple to the floor, head exploding into bloody mush. There’s another movement – she climbs faster, not wanting to present herself as another target.
Up on the rooftop, the ‘plex opens up – countless dots of light, from the gleaming shine of the Heights, sparkling like crystal above everything. And around them the vast sprawl of everything else – factories running through the night, the black hulk of the walled city barely visible except as a negation of light to one side. And the prismatic light-spray of Varna Road, the pleasure district. She moves, running over the rooftop, pushing through the warm, stagnant air, thick with a chemical aftertaste. When she reaches the edge, she leaps, heedless of the risk, rolling as she hits the next roof. What would be a long, winding route on foot, from, up here, was brief and direct, and without anyone else trying to kill her. And the pounding rage kept her mind from thinking about who that might be – she hadn’t pissed anyone off recently, at least that she knew of.