Dreams of falling are what you get for living on the underside of a floating City, but my recurring nightmare wasn’t about missing my step and tumbling down to the cold red ground. In my dream I’m in an empty room with no way out. Walls, floor and ceiling are the same featureless gray as the vanes and ledges that make up our mazeways and homespaces, but I’m not in the Undertow, I’m topside. I know that because I can feel myself getting heavier. Slowly at first, but soon I can’t lift my arms or keep my head up. Every breath heaves hard into my chest and my flesh drags off my bones. I need to move, to fight back. I try, but it hurts like fuck, so I give up and I just lie there, collapsing in on myself.
Then the floor disappears, and – hey! – I find I’ve been downside all along.
And I’m falling—
‘Isha! Wake up!’
‘Wha—?’ I focused on the figure shaking my hammock. My waster of a brother: he’d been out all day, come back home late and stoned, and now he’s decided to wake me up in the middle of the night. ‘Fuck off, Rakul.’
‘Shhh.’ He sounded scared.
Still half in my dream, I was suddenly frightened too. ‘What is it? Is Kera in trouble?’ In most families, the mother looks after the kids. Recently our ma had taken to paying me back for the last couple of decades by behaving like a brat herself. And we hadn’t seen her for two days – a long time even by her standards.
Rakul shook his head, put his finger to his lips and nodded at the wall separating my room from the common-room, where we did our trade.
I listened. Someone was inside our homespace. I rolled out of my hammock and reached for the boltgun. I’d done well on yesterday’s water and I wasn’t going to let some arsehole steal our trade goods just because my mother was out screwing around and my younger brother was stoned after a day with his gang friends. Except, I realized as I staggered upright, it wasn’t some arsehole. It was a lot of arseholes. And we had one rather dodgy gun. I muttered to Rakul, ‘We’ll go out the back.’
We crept into the corridor that linked our rooms. I went ahead with the gun. I’d only ever used it to shoot bolts into vanes to support nets or ledges; I didn’t want to know what a bolt’d do to flesh. Not that I was about to find out, as I hadn’t had time to load it. Hopefully the threat would be enough. Rakul shifted a storage box to reveal our hidden exit. In the common-room the intruders were kicking things over and calling to each other. Too busy stealing our stuff to come this way yet. I slung the gun over my back and we crawled into the narrow passage. Rakul did his best to pull the box back over it but he was still wrecked, and it fell over with a crash.
Oddly, I wasn’t scared so much as angry now. My plans for yesterday had included a trip to Dirla’s. We were going to try on some prime topsider cast-offs she’d acquired and altered fit. Her brother had said he’d drop in. He was a flesher, Kera’s old trade, more used to sewing people than clothes; I reckoned it was me, not his sister’s needlework, he was interested in. Only I’d blown them out for a pleasant day of cleaning water-traps, boiling piss and haggling with strangers. And now someone was raiding my home. City’s sake, I deserved a break.
We scooted along the passage as fast as we could and crawled out into the nets behind our homespace. Rakul went ahead and I noticed a small black box, topsider gear by the look of it, in a mesh bag slung across his back. I was too busy getting through the nets to worry about it then, but once we were safely up in the mazeways I said quietly, ‘What’s going on?’
‘Heard someone comin’,’ he muttered. The mazeway was wide here, but there were no nets.
I grabbed his arm and swung him round to face me, ignoring the lethal drop beside us. ‘Heard someone? Or expected them? What’ve you done, Rakul?’
He shrugged me off. ‘Ain’t done nothin’.’
‘So you haven’t, say, stolen a little black box like the one in yer bag?’
He sagged against the vane. ‘I never stole it.’
I believed him: he’s a prize stoner but a lousy liar. ‘Then where’d you get it?’
‘Found it. It’s Prewer’s.’
Gang business; not good news. ‘So if it’s hers, how’d you—?’
I shut up as a net creaked behind us. ‘Tell me later,’ I whispered. ‘After we’ve given it back. You know where Prewer lives, you lead the way.’
He nodded, turned and carried on.
We stopped to listen at every junction, but most people were tucked up in their hammocks, and the only encounter we had was with a meatbaby, curled up down a dead-end stretch of mazeway. As we passed its lair it opened a watchful eye. Rakul paused, itching to start a fight he thought he’d win, but I gave him a shove and we carried on.
The door to Prewer’s homespace was a battered circle of grubby white plastic, the top of a table, which is what topsiders put stuff on ‘cause they don’t like using the floor. The tabletop was on the floor now, lying on the ledge in front of the door.
I glanced over at Rakul. He shrugged. This looked well smoky, but we were out of options. We couldn’t go home, and I wasn’t going to get my mates in trouble by taking the box to them. I wondered what Kera would do. Probably throw the fucking thing off a mazeway.
Rakul lead the way and we edged along the corridor, backs to the vane. Beyond the broken door, Prewer’s homespace was dark and still.
Rakul loosened his flecks in their wrist-sheathes. ‘Somethin’ bad happened here.’
My brother, master of the obvious. I un-slung the boltgun and slipped a bolt from my pocket. Rakul stepped back. If he’d fixed the trigger mechanism like I’d asked then he wouldn’t’ve had anything to worry about.
Down the corridor, faint light seeped up from the floor-gap in the gang’s common-room – dawn was coming. When we reached the common-room I got a whiff of shit and old metal, a smell I remembered from Kera’s days as a flesher. I made out two bodies slumped against the wall between two doorways.
I moved towards the floor-gap; the common-room was about the same size as ours, but it had less floor and more gap, making the inner part of the homespace more defensible. Not defensible enough, though. I spotted a large rip in the nets, near the far side. Body sized: someone had fallen.
While we crossed the common-room I listened for noises further in, but I couldn’t hear much over the blood pounding through my ears. Once we’d passed the nets I went to the body nearest the gap and nudged it with my toe. Cool but not rigid; must have died recently.
Rakul, bent down over the other body, made a half grunt, half sob sound. ‘Lek,’ he murmured.
That was the girl he’d been seeing in Prewer’s gang. I nearly lost it then, and started to see the bodies as real dead people, started to think how likely we were to join them. But one of us had to hold things together. ‘We can’t help her, Rakul. Whatever happened, we missed it. We should just—‘
A bolt thudded into the wall by my head. I ducked, and my gun went off. The bolt hit so close to my foot that I felt the floor shake.
Rakul swore and skittered through the doorway behind us. We found ourselves in a smaller room with a small, closely netted floor-gap, shelves on the wall and cushions all around the edge. The place smelled of stale food and incense. A single lamp guttered on a high shelf, trashing my night-sight, though I could see well enough to make out another body slumped beside the door. My foot slid in something sticky. Blood, not quite dry. I made myself breathe slow and long, slow and long.
As Rakul headed towards the exit at the far side of the room a figure hurtled through the doorway.
I fumbled in my pocket for another bolt, but before I could get the gun loaded the two of them had come together in a mess of arms and legs.
They twisted apart, Rakul springing backwards, his opponent coming up in the crouch of an experienced fighter. The other boy wore colors I didn’t know in his braids and held his flecks confidently, one hand back for defense, the forward blade weaving and dipping to draw the eye.
Rakul only had one fleck drawn and he wasn’t closing. He was breathing hard, each breath ending in a gasp.
The gang-lag flicked a glance towards me, saw me still trying to load the boltgun, and decided I was no threat. Shit and blood, he was right. This boy was about to gut my brother, and there was nothing I could do about it.
The lag lunged.
Rakul backed off, moving faster than I’d have given him credit for. But he wasn’t looking where he was going. His foot hit the dead boy’s outstretched leg, and he fell backwards.
Tripping saved his life. His opponent’s next slash went through the air where Rakul’s face had been an instant before.
The lag was over-confident. He’d expected the blow to connect, and now he was off balance. He also had his back to me. I stepped forward and swung the boltgun, whacking him on the arse. He landed on top of Rakul, who squealed.
Without thinking I reversed the gun to bring the butt down on the back of the boy’s head.
It connected with a solid thud. The boy went limp.
As I bent down to pull him off Rakul I caught movement from the corner of my eye and looked up.
Through the doorway I saw a boy and girl on the far side of the common-room. The girl had both flecks drawn. The boy was raising his boltgun. They wore the same colors as the lag I’d just hit but if they’d planned on helping him out, they’d just changed their minds. Both of them were staring at the figure rising through the tattered nets.
The girl with the flecks turned and ran. The boy froze, the tip of his gun dipping. As the figure above the nets began to glide towards him I heard a pop, saw the bolt fly into the darkness below. But the newcomer was fast, as fast as only her kind can be.
I saw the flash of silver from her blades, and heard the boy scream. My mind, rather than filling in the details, flew back to a childhood memory.
The first time I saw an Angel we were returning from the death-feast of one of Kera’s lovers. He’d lived an eighth turn sunwise, and Kera had got me to dip my head below the mazeways to find our way back home. I was shouting out the colors on nearby water-traps when I saw someone flying below the vanes. A woman resting on the wind, white hair and blood–red cloak whipping out behind her. Her expression was serene and distant. She was so impossible, so beautiful, that I just stopped talking and stared. She didn’t see me, but the vision of a woman flying beneath the Undertow haunted my dreams for a long time.
This Angel wasn’t serene. She gave a final flick of her wrists, retracting her blades, then turned to face me. Her face might be pretty without that look of joy and self-hate, and her hair was topsider dark, worn plaited and coiled. I’d seen her before. She’d come to us for water once, when her usual ‘trader was ill. Her eyes showed no recognition, just a kind of blank appraisal, like she was figuring out whether I needed my throat ripping out too. Fighting the urge to turn and run, I dropped the boltgun and bowed my head.
Her voice was calm for someone who’d just committed murder. But then that was what she did for a living. One of the City’s elite assassins: the ultimate law, above and below. ‘You’re not one of Prewer’s, you’re not one of Limnel’s, so who are you?’
‘My name is Isha sanKera,’ I said, glancing up. She was walking round the edge of the common-room towards me. Walking, not flying, and favoring her right leg. Looked like the lag’s bolt hadn’t missed after all.
‘Isha,’ she repeated, then spotted the silver braid in my hair. ‘Ah, the water-trader’s girl.’
So she did know me. Behind me, Rakul moaned. He’d managed to push the lag off and sit up, though he had one hand pressed to his side.
‘Please lady, my brother is hurt.’
The Angel nodded permission for me to check Rakul out. I crouched next to him and pulled his hand away. He flinched as I probed the wound. Ragged but shallow. I was telling him not to fuss when a shadow fell over us. The Angel was staring at Rakul’s bag, which he’d dropped in the fight. The box had fallen from it.
‘Ah,’ she said, ‘There it is.’
The smart thing to say would’ve been something like, ‘There what is?’ but I was too deep in the nets for smart. Instead I stuttered, ‘It’s yours?’
She shook her head, but didn’t explain. ‘Is the boy badly hurt?’
If she cared about Rakul then maybe she wasn’t going to kill us for having the damned box. ‘No, lady. It’s a messy cut, but not deep. Nothing vital damaged.’
‘You know how to bind a wound?’
‘I’m no flesher, lady, but I’ve picked up a bit.’
‘Good. Then I want you to see to my leg.’
I looked down. The bolt had ripped a gouge the size of my little finger out the side of her calf.
‘Erm, you need to sit down lady. To slow the bleeding.’
‘As you say.’ She slid down the wall, bending her uninjured leg and stretching the other one out in front of her. I got the impression she was annoyed at herself for getting wounded. She nodded towards the lag I’d hit earlier, ‘Is he dead?’
I leaned over him. He smelt of shit and when I felt his neck the flesh was cool.
I’d killed him. My guts heaved and I pressed my hand to my mouth. I mustn’t throw up in front of an Angel. ‘Aye, lady, he’s dead,’ I said, when I could speak again.
‘Then he won’t mind being used as a leg rest,’ she said, and lifted her foot up onto the body. I wondered how many people she’d killed.
Rakul, who’d been trying to stay as still and small as possible, said, ‘Isha, there’s bandages an’ stuff here. On the third shelf up, in that white box.’
I fetched the box, which was well stocked. If you’re going to pick fights with other gangs you need to know how to patch your own gang up. I turned to the Angel but she shook her head. ‘Your brother first,’ she said, then pressed her lips together and looked away.
Rakul kept quiet while I cleaned and bound his cut. As I worked I listened for noises outside, but it looked like whoever had attacked us was gone. They probably hadn’t expected an Angel to turn up. Neither had we.
Rakul slumped back to lie on the floor and I turned to the Angel. She was pale and her leg was covered in blood. For a moment I thought she’d passed out, but when I reached out to shake her she opened her eyes. As I started to cut the black fabric of her bodysuit away from the wound, she spoke, her voice tight and feverish, ‘Your brother runs with the gangs?’
‘Aye, lady. With Prewer. Least he did.’
‘Aye, did. Prewer’s dead. You’ll find what’s left of her further in. Her whole gang’s dead. Courtesy of a nasty thug called Limnel. Have you heard of him?’
‘Think so. His territory’s rimwards of here, ain’t it?’
‘Aye. Near my homespace. He’s arrogant, but smart. Dangerous combination.’
She was rambling as the pain cut in. She’d be used to giving pain, not receiving it. I needed to make like I had things netted, needed to keep her calm. ‘Lady, this muscle needs stitching, but I don’t know enough to do that. I’ll stop the bleeding, then you can come back to our homespace, and my mother Kera can—‘
She raised her head and said, ‘Limnel has your mother.’
I froze, a vial of disinfectant in one hand. Rakul swore under his breath.
‘What?’ I said, stupidly.
‘Yesterday morning, when Limnel’s people were out looking for that,’ she nodded towards the box, ‘they picked up anyone they found in the area, in case they knew anything. According to the boy I, ah, questioned, that included a drunk water-trader called Kera. Your mother, I think.’
Through all the shit that had happened I’d managed to keep calm inside knowing that at least my crazy, feckless mother was safe. I reckoned she’d be lying in someone’s hammock, blasted on burnt mash, with no idea of the shit her children had gotten into. Finding out that Kera was in the hands of the bastard who’d wiped out Prewer’s gang scared the shit out of me. ‘What … what has he done to her?’
‘Questioned her, probably. Held on to her, if he thinks she might be useful.’
‘I have to get her back—‘
The Angel laughed. ‘Ah, right. So you’ll just walk into a gang’s homespace and demand your mother back?’
That shut me up.
More gently, she said, ‘You’d be dying for nothing. And I need you to do something for me, so I can’t allow that.’
‘You need me to do something? For you? I mean, of course lady.’ My childhood dream come true: a mission from an Angel. Except this was more like a nightmare. ‘What, exactly?’
‘That box over there belongs to Limnel. One of Prewer’s people got into Limnel’s and stole it. They chased him until he threw the box away to save his skin. Too late. I saw him fall, but not where the box went. I’ve just worked out where it ended up.’
‘What do you mean lady?’
From the floor behind us, Rakul murmured, ‘It’s like I said, Isha. I found it. In the sunwise water-trap. When I brought the trap up this mornin’ the box was just lyin’ there. I hid it in my room and went over to Prewer’s. I should’ve taken it with me, but I wasn’t sure what it was. So I listened and hung out. They were on about some piece of topsider loot they were hopin’ to get hold of. But when I heard that Mayn – you don’t know him, must have been him stole the box – had taken the fall right near our homespace, I got scared. I was gonna take the box back in the mornin’ but then someone attacked our homespace. I s’pose Limnel must have worked out where it was too.’
The Angel nodded. ‘Most likely. Well, it can’t stay down here. I’d planned to take it topside myself but the bolt damaged my implants,’ Her what? She must have seen me looking confused, as she frowned then continued, ‘Let’s just say I can’t fly or climb right now. So I need you to take the box topside for me, Isha.’
‘You want me to go—?’ I raised my eyes to indicate the City above us.
‘That’s right. Neither me or your brother going anywhere, so you’ll have to act as my agent.’
‘Have to? No disrespect lady, but I’ve only been topside once and it sucked.’ It’d been a dare, when I was twelve. I remembered bright light and crushing weight, and promising myself I’d never do it again. Fuck topside. I had everything I needed in the Undertow.
For a moment there was silence. Angels are used to being obeyed without question, and if someone had asked me this morning if I’d ever refuse a direct order from one, I’d have laughed and asked if I looked like I wanted to see my own guts. But this Angel was wounded. Despite my childhood fantasies, even goddesses bleed red and feel pain. She knew what I was thinking, knew she’d lost my respect, and that pissed her off. For a moment I wondered if she’d lash out. But then she looked away, and said quietly, ‘In return for your help I’ll do everything I can to make sure Limnel releases your mother.’
So now we were down to bargaining, just like ordinary people. And she had what I needed: the power to get Kera back. ‘All right, lady. I’ll go. But I’ll need directions.’
Rakul, leaning back on his elbows and watching us said, ‘I know a coupla ways topside from here. They’ll bring you out on Amnesia Street. You’ll be fine there, everyone’s too wasted to bother pickin’ on downsiders.’ He’d been topside lots of times, trying to prove how hard he was to his mates. But then, most of his mates were dead now.
‘And what do I do when I get up there?’
She looked me in the eye and said, ‘You take the box to the Minister.’
I stared at her, my mouth slack as a meatbaby’s. ‘The Minister? You want me to go to the Minister?’
‘Aye.’ Her tone said I’d better not have a problem with this.
I did. Going topside was bad enough, but now she wanted me to pay a visit to the master of the Angels, the most powerful man in the City. ‘But I can’t … I mean I’m just some downside girl.’
She smiled and said, ‘So was I, once.’
She had me there. ‘Fair enough. But … won’t he be expected you? Someone he knows, at least.’
‘All I said is that I’d get that,’ she nodded at the box, ‘to him. I didn’t say how.’
I wanted to ask what was in the box, but that would’ve been pushing it. Instead I said, ‘Hope he’s not in too much of a hurry, lady, ‘cause if I don’t bind yer leg up, yer gonna bleed to death.’
She nodded, then leaned her head against the wall. I got back to work. At least, I could see my hands moving. They just didn’t seem to belong to me any more. She winced when I cleaned the wound, but didn’t say anything.
As I tied the bandage she opened her eyes and said, ‘You’ll need money. Take this.’ She unclasped a thin gray band from her wrist.
‘Lady, that’s yer cred-bracelet.’ Only citizens have cred-bracelets, they’re prime loot. An Angel’s cred-bracelet is pure blade. ‘You sure you want to give it to me?’
‘You’re not going to run off with it.’ Right enough. She continued, ‘When you reach the Street, find a pedicab. Do you know what that is?’
I wasn’t totally gappy. ‘Sure. Topsider machine that carries people.’
‘Right. Don’t take any shit from the pedicab driver, Isha. They hate downsiders, but they won’t ignore an Angel’s cred-bracelet. Tell the driver to take you the Venus Fountain.’
Seeing my blank look, she said, ‘Do you know what a fountain is?’
I shook my head.
She told me.
If she hadn’t been an Angel I’d never have believed her.
I was in the mazeways, four or five turns from Prewer’s place, when it hit me: My brother was hurt, my mother in the shit, and I had orders from an Angel to find the scariest person in the world.
I stopped and knelt down, holding onto the rope that supported the mazeway to steady myself. Then I closed my eyes and hurled my guts up. I made the mistake opening my eyes while I was still leaning over, and got a view of the red and brown wasteland of the ground at dawn. The nets were gappy here: if I just kept leaning forward, all my troubles would be over –
I sat back on my heels and wiped a hand across my mouth.
The bag had swung round so the box rested on my thigh. I fished it out. It was just like my nightmare room, no way in or out. When I shook it something inside moved, though the motion was damped.
I could just throw the bastard thing off the mazeway right now and be done with it. Kera’s choice: no questions, no regrets, no responsibility.
Yeah, right. Throw the box away, then hope the Angel understood why I’d disobeyed her, and that Limnel decided to let my ma go anyway. Not to mention living the rest of my life – unlikely to be very long – wondering what this had all been about.
I pulled myself up on the support rope, and carried on. My throat was dry and raw, but getting a drink would have to wait.
Though I was traveling through unfamiliar mazeways, I couldn’t get lost. I just needed to head rimwards. But I was still vulnerable every time I dipped my head below the mazeways to get my bearings. I reckoned I must be passing close to Limnel’s territory, and if any of his people found me like this then all they’d have to do was snatch the box and kick me off the mazeway.
Fortunately the few people around this early were intent on their own business, and this fear soon took its place with all the others, becoming part of the whole shit-crazy mission.
I stepped through a gap in the vanes to find myself facing a near-vertical net: the edge of the world. The net linked the lip of the City above to the mazeway where I stood. Through the curtain of ropes I saw a distant wall of glowing orange. That was the real edge of the world. I had no idea what was beyond that, though I knew that stuff, and people, came into the City from outside.
No point standing gawping. Just get it over with.
Before I had time to think I closed my eyes and fell forward. Instantly, everything in my body either loosened up or clenched. I hit rope and grasped it hard. When I was certain I was secure in the nets I opened my eyes. Then I started upwards, making sure I had three limbs anchored before moving the fourth. Halfway up, I moved outwards and crooked my right elbow round the edge of the net. I grabbed a handful of net with my right hand, then eased my right leg round to join it on the outside of the net to straddle the nets. Suddenly the bolt gun shifted on my back pulling me off balance. Rope slithered through my palm. I clawed my hand hard, felt the tendons in my wrist twang taut, my fingers spasm. But my grip held.
I waited until my breathing was under control again, then let go with my left hand and slipped it round the edge of the net. Finally, my left leg. I started to climb again, eyes focused on my hands.
I thought I’d feel the bite of topside gravity soon as I got level with the rim of the City, but it cut in slowly. The ropes were laid against a solid surface rather than hanging free, making the climb harder and with every step I felt myself getting a little heavier. Just like my nightmare. I pressed my face into the near-vertical slope of the edge of the City. The familiar sour milk scent of the City calmed me, gave me the strength to push the nightmare away and carry on. By the time I got my first glimpse over the rim I could feel my body changing, insides shifting to deal with the gravity.
With a last push I hauled myself up to lie on the ledge that ran round the edge of the City. Light beat down from above, and the air felt chilly and thin.
I levered myself onto all fours, rested there a while, then stood up. As soon as I got upright my neck muscles cramped. I raised an arm – it felt like someone had strapped slabs of meat to it – and massaged the back of my neck.
Once the worst of the pain had passed I tried moving. It wasn’t so bad if I took small steps and avoided lifting my feet more than I had to.
Topside, they have walls, going up, not vanes, going down, but the principle’s the same. Many walls make a building, their version of our homespaces. I turned left to head sunwise, and walked along the ledge until I reached a gap in the buildings.
A woven wall of wire ran across the gap: the fence that stops topsiders from wandering out onto the ledge. In most places the fence burns you if you touch it, but according to Rakul, it had been cut here. I hoped he was right.
I reached out slowly, ready to snatch my arm back. The wires were cold. I pushed the fence and it swung away from me, my door into the backstreets.
It was welcomingly dark between the buildings. At first I kept one shoulder against the wall, but my body got into the rhythm of the higher gravity quicker than I’d expected. I could have done without the extra weight of the boltgun, but I wasn’t going to leave my only weapon behind. Having nothing solid above me was weird, and I kept wanting to bow my head. The lack of gaps in the floor was pure blade though. Topsiders have it easy.
I passed openings of various sizes in the walls, most of them closed or barred. When I passed an open one, I had to look in. Half a dozen men stood round a table, playing a game involving plastic pieces, bits of card, and at least one knife. I smelled smoke and sweat as they turned to face me. The nearest one started to reach into his clothes. I didn’t wait to see what he was getting out. I ran. Every time my foot hit the ground pain shot up my leg, and I kept thinking I was falling, but somehow I managed to keep falling forward and not over.
By the time I’d got round the next corner, I had to stop. I couldn’t hear anyone behind me, so I spent a while leaning against a wall, just breathing.
The only other people I saw in the backstreets weren’t interested in me. A boy and a girl, topsiders both, screwing against a wall. I smiled to myself. Some things’re the same everywhere.
When I rounded a corner and saw the Street I stopped dead. So open, so full, so bright. The far wall, which had to be a dozen meters away, was all color and light. On my left I saw a big empty space with the fence running across it. To my right the Street went on so far that it hurt to focus on it.
Even this early in the morning, there were more people than I could count. Walking, talking, crouching in corners, sitting on seats. A man turned into the narrow gap where I stood, saw me, stopped dead, and laughed. Then his face dropped and he backed up muttering and whimpering under his breath. He was a topsider, way shorter than me and dressed in clean clothes with no rips or patches, but he was as caned as a lag on a bender. They say that every Street in the City has a theme. I’d just worked out what was on sale on Amnesia Street.
I took a deep breath and stepped out. No one took any notice of me. I shuffled rimwards, towards a small group of men and women sitting on devices which had to be pedicabs. The drivers perched on stools balanced on a wheel, with plush seats in front of them, big wheels at either side of the seat, and a bar across the back of the seat for the driver to steer with. The pedicab drivers gave me smoky looks as I approached. My tongue, already dry, started to feel like leather.
Topsiders hate us ‘cause they think we’re scum, but they also envy and fear us ‘cause only downsiders can become Angels. The trick, according to Rakul, is to make sure they feel more fear than hate. I sauntered up to the driver on the end of the row, who was sipping something steaming and sweet-smelling from a paper cup. Trying not to lick my lips at the sight of her drink, I croaked, ‘Take me to the Venus Fountain.’
She looked at me, cup halfway to her mouth, and I felt the balance tip from fear to hate. ‘Now,’ I said with more confidence than I felt, and held out the Angel’s cred-bracelet.
The driver looked at the cred-bracelet, looked at me, and said, ‘Where the fuck d’you get City ID, shit-eater?’
I’m no good at lying, but I didn’t think she was ready for the truth. ‘I stole it,’ I said, trying to look fierce and hard and not like I wanted to puke again.
The woman looked confused. Probably not used to downsiders owning up to things, especially things they hadn’t done. ‘You stole it?’ she frowned. ‘I’m sure the militia would be interested in hearing about that.’ She didn’t sound that interested in telling them.
I waved the bracelet under her nose and said, ‘But wouldn’t you be more interested in charging me whatever you feel like to take me wherever I want to go?’
She put her cup into a holder on the back of the seat and took the bracelet, then ran it through a small device next to the cup-holder. Her narrow topsider eyes widened in astonishment. ‘Wait, this belongs to … ’ She looked from the readout to me. ‘There is no way you stole this bracelet, girl.’
I decided to save her further embarrassment. ‘Yer right, I didn’t steal it. Someone gave it me. And she wants me to go to the Venus Fountain, like I said.’
She returned the bracelet to me, handling it as though it’d been dipped in shit, then nodded to the seat in front of her. ‘Get in then. And it’ll be the standard fare, in case your … friend … asks.’
I sunk into the seat and put the gun across my lap. It felt good to sit. When we began to move I grabbed for the sides, stomach lurching. But there was nothing left to throw up, and after a few seconds of frantic gulping, my guts settled down.
Amnesia Street passed like a dream. There was so much to see I’d barely focused on one thing before something else grabbed my attention. Every wall was different, most of them decorated, or lit up, or with images moving over them. The people were so varied in appearance; I’d thought all topsiders were alike, but some were nearly as tall as me, others short and fat. Their hair and skin could be light, dark and all shades between. Their clothes came in every style and color, all without a patch or rip, all clean and bright and made to fit.
I wasn’t the only downsider here. I saw a couple of girls, dressed in scanty topside cast-offs, looking to sell a bit of grind. Further on I spotted a boy with a filthy face and wide eyes leaning against the wall and calling out softly to passersby. As I watched a dark-skinned couple with jewels stuck onto – no, embedded in – their faces stopped to talk to him. It seemed strange that such beautiful people should want to get wrecked, let alone buy their gear from downsiders.
As I looked away from the dealer, my eyes caught sudden movement. Someone running through the crowd behind us. Whoever it was, the pedicab soon outpaced them.
Turning to look forward again, I saw a mass of … stuff … at the end of the Street. Not buildings, but straight brown and gray columns disappearing up into a shimmering green blobs. Trees. That must be the Gardens. The Venus Fountain was in there somewhere.
A whistle cut through the buzz of the crowd. I knew that sound – a hunter’s call. A heartbeat later, another answered it. I looked to either side. To my left, where the first whistle had sounded, a lanky figure loped through the crowd, keeping pace with the pedicab.
‘Can you go any faster?’ I asked the driver.
‘Whatever you say,’ She gave a small grunt, and we began to outpace the downsider. I reached into my pocket for a bolt. As I loaded the gun I heard another whistle. Behind me now, thank the City.
The driver slowed as we approached the Gardens. When I asked why she was stopping, she said, ‘You’ll have to walk the last few meters. No cabs in the arboretum.’
Whatever an arboretum was. ‘All right. Just get me as close as you can, then show me the quickest route.’
We halted under an arch of greenery. This place was as dark as the backstreets. The air smelled sharp, heady, itchy on the nose. The driver pointed ahead at a gap in the green stuff. ‘That path cuts through the trees to the Venus Fountain.’
I climbed down from the pedicab, jarring my knees on the last step. After calling back a hasty ‘Thanks,’ over my shoulder, I set off down the path as fast as I could go. Which wasn’t very fast. I might be able to run for a while in a straight line on even ground, but this path wasn’t straight, and the ground wasn’t even. The surface under my feet was springy and prickly, all covered in bumps and loose stuff. If I missed a step I was likely to end up head-butting one of the trees. I soon gave up trying to keep the boltgun pointed forward and just hugged it to my chest.
I glimpsed movement and stumbled to a halt. A small animal, the size of a rat and bright as a toy, watched me from the center of the path. It raised itself up on its hind legs then sprung into the air, trilling an alarm.
I couldn’t help myself; I laughed.
Then shut my mouth with a snap when, just beyond where the rat thing had appeared, a downsider a few years older than me stepped out onto the path. He wore topside clothes, though the colors in his long pale hair were ones I’d seen recently. He didn’t have a gun or flecks, but something about the way he stood told me that that he had plenty of people to do his violence for him.
For a moment we stared at each other, then a smile curled onto his lips and he said, ‘Who’re you, then?’
‘Isha sanKera.’ I said with more confidence than I felt, then added, ‘And you?’ though I already knew.
An odd expression flickered over his face, like something had just occurred to him. Then he introduced himself with just one word, no lineage, like he was an Angel or something. ‘Limnel.’ He glanced up at the trees, ‘Yer a long way from home, Isha.’
I said nothing. The bag with the box in was on my back. He couldn’t see it from there.
Limnel continued, holding my gaze, ‘So, what’re you doin’ topside, water-trader?’
‘Meetin’ someone.’ True enough, far as it went.
Limnel looked beyond me for a moment, a quick flick of the eyes, then said, in a tone that said I should just tell him everything, ‘Who’re you meetin’, then?’
I swallowed and shifted my grip on the boltgun.
Limnel shook his head. ‘Wouldn’t use that if I was yer. Not if ya wanna see Kera again.’
Before I could stop myself, I blurted, ‘Where is she?’
‘Downside. Which is where yer should be. So, why doncha just hand it over, and then I’ll see if I can’t arrange a little family re-union.’ Again, that shifting gaze.
‘Hand what over?’ That was dumb. He already knew I had the box.
Limnel gave me a look like he was disappointed with me. ‘C’mon. This is a game fer the big boys an’ girls. Yer outa yer league. Gimme the merchandise and I’ll make sure ya see yer ma again. Whaddya say, girl?’
The Angel had promised she’d try to get my mother back, but she might have only said that to get me to do her dirty work for her. And even if she did go to Limnel’s homespace and order him to release Kera, would Limnel respect a wounded Angel? After all, I hadn’t. Now he’d found me, Limnel would get the box off me, one way or another. I’d probably save myself a beating if I just gave it to him.
But in the end it came down to who I trusted. Beyond all that flash and cool the Angel wasn’t so different from me. She’d promised to get Kera back, and she wouldn’t leave me dangling. Angels might be killers, but they’ve got honor. This Limnel, he was a user, a schemer. A liar. His eyes had been lying to me the whole time we’d been talking.
‘I say … go fuck yerself.’ As I spoke, I turned, moving as fast as the gravity would allow. The lag was right behind me, both flecks drawn. I was off balance but at this range I couldn’t miss. My bolt hit him in the thigh. Bone cracked.
Over his scream I heard Limnel shout, ‘Ya fuckin’ bitch!’
I fell sideways into the wall of green, bounced off something, and started to lurch through the trees. Bits of greenery whipped my face, and my head was full weird smells and my own voice yelling ‘Run! Run!’
I couldn’t run, not for long, no matter how scared I was. I dropped to all fours, gasping and heaving, expecting to feel a bolt in my back any moment. When that didn’t happen I let myself sink to the ground and rolled onto my back. I’d dropped the gun, but I could feel the box digging into my ribs. So much trouble for such a small thing.
Above me, the trees rustled. I opened my eyes as a dark shape flew overheard. For a moment I wondered if the Angel had followed me up here. No, that made no sense. It was an Angel, but a different one.
She flew out of sight and I pulled myself upright on one of the trees, then backtracked to recover the boltgun. When the first scream came from the direction the Angel had gone, I turned and started to walk the other way.
Ahead, the trees gave way to an open area with a big glittery thing in the middle. I made out naked figures frozen in unlikely positions, all covered in flowing water. Just like the Angel had said: Venus Fountain. My throat made to swallow what was left of my spit and I was so caught up in the sight of all that water that at first I didn’t notice the man sitting on the edge of the fountain, trailing one hand in the water.
I stepped out of the trees.
The Minister’s suit looked like it cost more money than I’d see in my life, and though his skin was pink and perfect I got the impression he was very old.
He stood as I approached, giving me a look like he wanted to ask a question, but was waiting for me to speak first. For the third time today, I was going to have to introduce myself to a dangerous stranger, perhaps the most dangerous stranger of all. Except this time I had a reason for being here. I dropped my gaze, crossed my arms and said, ‘Sirrah. My name is Isha sanKera. I was sent by the Angel who was to meet you here.’
The Minister said, ‘Come forward. I won’t eat you. This Angel you say sent you, she is indisposed?’ His voice was odd. Cold and formal, like an Angel, but with a topside accent.
From somewhere in the trees a brief shriek was choked off. The Minister gave no sign of having heard it.
‘Wounded sirrah. She can’t fly or walk, so she sent me.’
‘Oh dear. Malia is normally so careful.’ He smiled indulgently, showing his teeth, which looked too white and even to be real.
‘Is that her name, sirrah? Malia?’
‘Aye, that’s her. Now, I believe you have something for me.’
I swung the bag off my shoulder and fumbled in it then, finding that my hands shook too much to get the box out, handed the whole thing over to him.
He extracted the box, pocketed it, and returned the bag. As I took it, he stepped back and said, ‘Kindly tell Malia that I will honor her request.’
Realizing he wanted a response from me I nodded.
‘Good. Now I must be going. I am a very busy man. Goodbye, young lady.’
He strode off down the path without another word.
I stood there, empty bag in hand, while the unpleasant sounds from beyond the trees died away. So, the Minister had the box. I’d fulfilled my mission. What was I supposed to do now?
Get a drink, that’s what. I walked up to the fountain. The cascades and fans of water hissed and sparkled in the greenish light filtering through the trees. Water was the stuff of life, but who’d’ve thought it would become like a living thing itself? Admire it later. Drink it now. I knelt by the rim, leaned over, and dipped a hand in the water. The cool swirl stirred the hairs on my hand, making me shiver with pleasure. I lifted my hand, pressing my fingers tight together to keep the water in—
And froze. Through the curtain of water I saw someone standing on the far side of the fountain. They wore red and black, and they weren’t standing on the ground.
Just what were the rules for this situation? Ah, fuck the rules, after a day like this I deserved a drink. I’d pay my respects in a minute.
‘Don’t.’ The Angel’s voice only just reached me through the fountain, but I let go of my handful of water like it was boiling. I looked up at her, suddenly furious. I’d been through shit, nearly getting myself killed for some stupid fucking box which, when I’d given it to the Minister, he hadn’t even thanked me for. And now this Angel was trying to tell me I couldn’t have a well earned drink of water.
I was on my feet at once, fists bunched. Fortunately I’d put the gun down to drink, otherwise I might have done something really stupid. Breathing hard, I watched her as she came gliding round the fountain towards me. She was worth watching: though not much taller than a topsider, she was disturbingly beautiful, with eyes you could fall into.
But I was too busy being pissed off to care. I broke her gaze and said, ’Why not, lady? The morning I’ve had, I reckon I’ve earned the right to take a drink in peace.’
‘Aye, that you have. But it would be the last drink you ever took.’ Her voice was quiet and musical, not at all angry.
‘What d’you mean? This water looks good. And there’s plenty of it.’
She’d stopped a few meters from me, and now floated to the ground. ‘It looks good because there is poison in it to keep it clean and pure, and discourage people from taking a free drink. You, of all people, should know that there is no such thing as a free drink.’
‘What? Oh, you mean the braids. Aye, lady, I’m a water-trader.’ My anger was fading in the face of her unearthly calm.
‘Indeed. You are Kera’s daughter. My name is Nual.’
Though the Angel didn’t say my name like it was a question, I decided to answer like it was one. ‘Aye, I’m Isha.’ I had the feeling that she was about to tell me something I didn’t want to know. Or something I already knew in my heart, but didn’t want to admit. I tried to put her off by asking the question I’d wanted to ask right at the start. ‘What’s in the box?’
For a moment I thought she wasn’t going to tell me. Then she said, ‘The box you delivered to the Minister contained a narcotic powder, and a dataspike.’
‘Malia was involved in drugs?’ I hadn’t expected drugs. I’d thought Angels had better things to do.
‘I will explain; we owe you that much. This particular substance is more than recreational. It destroys the user’s life. Malia discovered that a topside dealer had sold a quantity of the drug, plus a dataspike containing the formula for making more, to someone in her region of the Undertow. She told the Minister she would find out who had it, get it off them and bring it to him. He does not generally interfere in gang business, but this drug has recently caused the death of an Angel, so he agreed that if she could get him a sample and the formula, he would put sniffers at the customs gates to stop further imports.’
She had used some words I didn’t know, but I got the idea. ‘So now the Minister knows what this stuff is, he’s gonna stop people bringing it into the City?’
‘Correct.’ This Nual was as cold and distant as the Angel I remembered from my childhood. I couldn’t imagine her ever being ‘just some downside girl’. But then she said quietly, ‘Better too late than not at all,’ and I wondered if the Angel who’d died had been a friend of hers.
‘Thank you, lady. I appreciate you letting me know what’s what. And now I’d better get back and tell Malia what the Minister said. I don’t s’pose you know anywhere round here that’d sell me clean water?’
Nual said, ‘I will find you a drink on the way back to the Undertow. We need to visit Limnel.’
I’d hoped he’d been one of the ones doing the screaming earlier, the slimy little rat. ‘He’s still alive then?’ Then what she’d said sunk in. ‘When you say ‘we’ … You know he’s got my mother?’
She nodded. Her expression was hard to read, but looking at her I felt like I always felt in the nightmare, just before the floor drops away. My mouth went off in at attempt to deflect the truth. ‘And you’ll help get her back? That’s top prime. I mean, thank-you lady. Malia said she would, but she’s hurt and—‘
‘Your mother is dead, Isha.’
Of course Kera was dead. When Malia had told me that she was in trouble, somewhere deep inside I’d known I wasn’t going to see her again.
Everything was down to me now. Although really everything had been down to me for a while. Kera should’ve handed the business over to me ages ago, and I should have told her to go find herself a new life, rather than fucking up mine. We’d made each other’s lives miserable far beyond the point when we should have let go. And now she was gone for good. I sat down on the edge of the fountain and stared at the ground. It was rough and pitted, like I pictured the real ground far below must be. Finally I said, ‘How…?’
Nual said gently, ‘While Limnel’s people were asking her about what she saw, she died. Her heart gave out.’
‘Limnel didn’t kill her, then?’ It would be so much easier if I could blame him.
‘Not directly, no.’
‘But he lied to me, made me think she was still alive. Bastard.’ I looked up at her. ‘Will you kill him?’ I asked it like a favor, like she owed me.
‘I will not. We do not kill for pleasure or whim, but under orders, and to maintain order. I am sorry for your loss, but I will not avenge it. And I advise that you do not try to, unless you want to make Limnel your enemy.’
She was right. No point throwing my life away for a life I couldn’t get back. Rakul might disagree but that was his choice. He didn’t need me to tell him what to do any more than I needed Kera to. ‘But you’ll get her body back.’
‘Aye. That is only right.’
And then I would perform a daughter’s last duty: my mother’s deathfeast. Whatever else, she had loved me, even if she’d rarely showed it. And I had loved her, despite everything. But when we had eaten her flesh and let her bones fall to the dust below, then I’d take control of my life.
‘I’m ready to go now, lady.’
Nual held out a hand to help me stand, then fell into step beside me.
The next time I found myself in the nightmare room I wouldn’t wait until it was too late to fight back. I’d make my own way out.
Except, I haven’t had the dream since.
Jaine Fenn (who can be found on the web at www.jainefenn.com) has seen her short fiction appear in various places including ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’, ‘GUD’ and ‘On Spec’. Her first two novels, published by Gollancz, are ‘Principles of Angels’ and ‘Consorts of Heaven’, the former of which has a certain labyrinthine link to the story above. Despite following the advice about always turning left, she invariably gets lost in mazes.