science fiction and fantasy writer

Stiletto

She didn’t react, immediately, when the bookshop’s door alarm chimed and two men walked in. Not until one of them – the taller, clean-shaven with braided hair – said, “Ruby Tuesday.”

Then she flinched.

With careful deliberation, she marked her page and closed the book. Set the taped-together paperback on the counter top and squared it against the edge with finger and thumb.

“Mira Bookman, these days,” she said and kept the tremor out of her voice, if not her hands. “Haven’t used that handle in five years.” Since the Junta fell, she didn’t say, and she’d burned her glad rags and run. Only as far as St Kilda, in the end, from Bellarine round the other side of the Bay, the Redlit City beside the sea wall where Spire dwellers went to indulge their darker vices. Couldn’t make herself leave the megalopolis, even knowing it was the only way out from under.

She’d tried: got as far as Ballarat and stayed half a year on the edge of the desert, before the glow on the night horizon had drawn her back. She should’ve gone further, past the ghost towns out west, across the border to Adelaide. But she could no more free herself of the city than she could of these two.

“We know,” said the shorter, wider, shaven scalp, pointed beard and tattooed hands, and: “Why we’re here.”

Mr Oliver, he called himself, and his partner, Mr Stanley, their choice of names the only humour in their double act. Both of them wearing Chinese silks cut to Indian fashion, one in rust and the other moss green. It marked them out – was meant to – as cops in plainclothes but not undercover. That, and their mirrored polyoptics, like bug eyes that covered cheekbones and half their foreheads.

“Your system on the net, Ruby?” Mr Stanley asked, his shadow crossing her as he sauntered around the shop, touching this and stroking that.

She guessed the question referred to both the fisheye on the ceiling, which was obvious, and the samplers round the door, which weren’t. Some systems were networked and some weren’t, in the liminal zone that bordered the Ring around the Bay, where the AIs’ outermost tentacles penetrated from within and the unregulated mess of Melbourne’s ghetto and shantytown sprawl encroached from without.

“Ain’t even workin’, really,” she said. A truthful answer and the one they wanted to hear. Mr Stanley disappeared behind a rack of Spike-era electronika, re-emerged with a data scroll half unfurled, dropped it carelessly underfoot.

“You got out clean, Ruby,” said Mr Oliver, back to sneaking up on the reason for their appearance. Mr Stanley chose a book and glanced at its cover, then put it back on a different shelf.

“Apparently not.”

Mr Stanley laughed, a high pitched trill intended to set the teeth on edge and having the desired effect. He planted a stilettoed heel in the seat of a paisley reading couch, to reach and pull down another antique hardback, flipped some pages and tucked that one under his arm to take. Mr Oliver remained in the doorway, arms folded and filling it side-to-side, silk jacket straining around his shoulders. Ruby knew the routine and wished she wasn’t impressed by it.

“Only us that know,” Mr Stanley said. “Only us that tracked you down, Ruby Tuesday. Why we’re here. You’re clean, Ruby. Makes you our hole card. No one knows who you were, that you know us and we know you.”

And she knew and they knew what their hold over her was worth. Two words they needed to whisper – Junta informer – and she was walking dead, no better than a borg ready for retirement. That these two had survived the purges after the Clean Hand toppled the Junta didn’t mean they were straight, just smarter and more subtle than the average run of Junta thugs. That they’d survived meant only that they’d stayed ahead this long, like her, and now fate was catching up. That the Hand would use them, regardless, said much about the true degree of difference between the Junta and their incorruptible successors.

“Need you to do a job for us,” said Mr Stanley.

“You remember a kid, name of 2Fly,” said Mr Oliver. “Used to run with the Bloodied Angels, back before.”

A street gang, teens and pre-teens, one of dozens armed by Junta cops and set to vigilante violence. The Bloods were one of the big ones, with the Shinboners and the Dons. All of them broken when the Hand swept in from Hong Kong or Singapore or whichever puritanical oligarchy they’d sprung.

Ruby remembered the kid – of course she did. She’d fucked him enough times.

“He had a brother,” she said, neutrally. “Big behemoth with a temper.”

“Blinky Bill,” said Mr Stanley, batting his eyelids at her before he went back to flipping through the trays of copyright-hacked one-time wafers.

“Just steer clear of him,” said Mr Oliver, with a quirk of his lips that told her she wasn’t fooling anyone. “They got out clean, like you, Ruby. Got themselves a place in the commune. 2Fly’s working as a courier, up Richmond way. Got himself a girl.”

A girl. Leverage, they meant. Ruby asked, “What d’you want him for?”

Mr Oliver answered. “Owes us a favour.”

She hadn’t known about that, but she knew the language of favours and knew it meant a greater price than what they were asking of her. She closed her eyes a moment, held the sadness inside, for the tough kid she remembered and his girl. She opened them again and stared at nothing while they told her the who and the where and the how.

After they left, she sat a while in the shop and thought, about how she might get out from under this, and thought she probably couldn’t, would wind up a dead woman if she tried. There were only two reasons, that she could think of, why that pair in silks and stilettos didn’t want to lean directly on 2Fly themselves. The first was because they wanted her as a cut out, a breakable link in the chain between them and the dirty work – could even be they were banking on her running, once the job was done. The second was because they wanted their hooks into her, again, and wanted to know if she’d still do as she was told. Either way, she thought that this was it, enough, and after it was done she would run, finally. Head west or buy her way onto a ship.

She went outside and locked the shop and rolled a cigarette with shaking fingers. Took a long drag, then another, before heading down to the Strip. Derelicts sprawled in the gutters, unregarded by the brittle-bright young things who stepped over them and filled the cafes and bars.

A pair of borgs scooped up a dead or near-dead body to load into their van. Living dead men, themselves, with half their brains scooped out, wired to some city AI in the Spires. The guy they carried had service flashes on the shoulders of his coat, had most likely spent half a lifetime up Sydney way, flying prion dusters out of Picton and Katoomba, keeping back the hungry sentience inside the interdiction zone. This, his reward.

She crossed the Strip and kept going down to the Esplanade, with its double tang of brine and birdshit. She strolled beside the brass wall of the Ring, translucent as gauze, grown up where the beach should’ve been, covered in guano and graffiti, now, cracked and plastered over in places, monument of a billion-billion smartmatter corpses.

A gusty wind ruffled her clothes and hair. There were storm clouds to the south, roaring in off Bass Strait. Distant lightning reflected off the siren Spires out in the middle of the Bay.

She’d been there many times, back when she was a trophy of perverse fashion, to the glass city on the water. She’d seen how its glamour dulled, up close, seen it for what it was: the unbeating heart of the megalopolis. Symbol of what might’ve been, were it not for the wild sentience building sky-high sails and coathanger bridges where Sydney once was.

When 2Fly had come to her, he’d been a skinny white kid with a burn-scarred ear and a child’s attempt at a moustache. Just another street thug, but smart and a survivor, not the usual junior sociopath – unlike his brother. It’d taken her a minute to sort him out from among the crowd of Bloods who’d surrounded her a fortnight earlier. He was the one who’d done the talking, had kept his brother reined in, when Blinky Bill wanted to keep her as well as the man she’d brought.

She remembered how he’d convinced her to let him buy her time, when she was really out of his league, a plaything for Spire-dwellers alone. He’d kept coming back, paying every time, which must’ve been more than he could afford. She’d minded him less than most of her other clients, because he was respectful and willing to do the things she wanted. In truth, she’d been flattered to be the object of such a sincere obsession.

Now she’d be the death of him.

She dropped the butt of her cigarette under her heel and ground it into the tarmac.

#

Friendly’s drawer came up thirty dollars over. She palmed the extra, on the grounds it would come out of her wage if the count was short. Doubtful anyone would ever know, or care if they did, with the borgs on the entry the only security networked to the head office AI. The camera feeds went no further than the branch manager’s office and the drawers were only a manual count.

Friendly stopped by the toilets on her way out, to secure today’s opportunity inside her undies, before she strode past the slouching borgs and out the loan office doors. She spared the living dead men not a sideways glance.

Outside, she endured the scratching edges of the plastic notes for half a block before she lifted her smock and took them out. Few people took any notice, with hookers strutting past flaunting far more than a flash of bare legs and underwear – big business with the cargo port and the air base both less than a kay away.

She spent nearly half of the thirty dollars on herself before she caught the train, bought a kebab roll and a not-quite fresh orange at the cluster of stalls outside Tullamarine Station, seeing no reason to take it all home and have 2Fly and Blinky Bill blow it on nothing useful.

She ate the kebab on the station platform, watching a giant Indian cargo lifter climb almost vertically into the sky, against a backdrop of storm clouds over the southern half of the city. The lifter’s wings morphed as it rose, tapering for ultrasonic flight.

The train, when it arrived, was a shaking, groaning, screeching behemoth that was old before the Spike. Once inside the crowded carriage, Friendly fished out her ‘pod to text 2Fly and find out when he’d be home.

She pictured his face when she showed him her sixteen dollars and change. His lopsided smile, the skin of his right cheek pulled taught by the scars around his ear. They’d add it to their pile, he’d say. Their ticket to India – every little bit counted. Then he’d spend it all on meths, if his brother didn’t take it first.

Following his mother, they’d be, if they ever managed it, who’d lit out when her boys were nine and seven, gone to Adelaide, they thought, and the refugee camps there that might get you passage to India or China or the bright young cities of the Trans-Arctic.

Friendly had thought, more than once, of following in that unknown woman’s steps, with or without the money 2Fly couldn’t save. Hadn’t, only because her imagination failed her at the city’s edge, leaving her blind to the world beyond and not knowing if it offered any better than the little she had here.

She ate her orange, standing in the carriage with her elbow hooked around a pole, dropping rind at her feet.

#

2Fly misjudged the gap in front of the tram, guessed wrong, too, that it had a human driver to apply the brakes. When he realised he’d got it wrong and the tram wasn’t going to slow, he threw his weight in the opposite direction and wound up with his bicycle on top of him and sprawled in a puddle of filthy water and excrement beside a blocked storm drain.

He lay for a moment, winded and slightly stunned, after the tram swept by, a herd of other cyclists slipstreaming in its wake. He told himself it was a cheap way to learn they’d brought networked trams onto this route, remote wired to AIs that had less concern for roadkill than for precious schedules.

He picked himself up and righted his bike, wiped the worst of the filth off himself and his delivery satchel, no wetter for his mishap, just more pungent.

A woman had stopped to watch him. She held his gaze from under the shelter of a black umbrella. She was tall, six feet at least and topping him by a few inches. Imperious, with the height and that cool stare and her young middle-aged face, the skin only just starting to loosen into jowls. 2Fly stared, certain for a minute that he was mistaken, or that she was an apparition rattled loose by his knock to the head.

But it wasn’t a mistake. It was really her.

Whore, informer, siren.

“Ruby Tuesday,” he murmured.

She lifted a cigarette, protected under curled fingers, and took a drag, then flicked the butt out into the rain. “Hello, 2Fly. I’ve got a job for you.”

Cold – as if her bare tits had never bounced in front of his face while she rode him. Like she hadn’t enjoyed delivering all the lessons he’d bought from her, back when.

He gestured at the bike. “Got a job already.”

Her cool scrutiny went down to his feet and came slowly back up again. “Mm.” She made him feel like a little kid, like he hadn’t felt since the first time she left him standing with his pants round his ankles while she undressed over the other side of the room.

“Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

She turned on her heel, not waiting to see if he followed and, because of that, he did. He found himself watching the swing of her hips, obvious even under her loose, plain-spun garb, the rhythm of her gait a lodestone for any hetero male gaze. Utterly different from Friendly’s square-hipped, mannish stride. He flashed to the last time he’d watched her walk away from him, in the dark, with a man from the Spires standing beside him, waiting to die.

Ruby Tuesday strutted across the road and into the Ghan enclave of Zoo Park. The noise of the city vanished behind them half a block in, as though someone had slammed down a door. The suburb had an otherworldly feel, with its architectural fusion of New Mughal and ‘Twenties Organic Adobe. Whitewashed round walls curved seamlessly into rooves and onion-topped towers, high windows peered down from the homes and wide-arched open frontages revealed shops and cafes and hashish dens.

The residents were Ghan – which meant Muslim, their familial origins anywhere from Marrakech to Ambon. The Zoo’s spaghetti laneways were full without seeming crowded, the residents dignified beneath ubiquitous black umbrellas. There were Spire dwellers among them, flashes of pale skin and rich Chinese silk, here and there, most with the faint pearl glow of repeller haloes, rather than umbrellas, to keep the rain off.

Ruby seated herself at a table in the shelter of a cafe’s arched front, fronting onto a circular patch of couch grass and the dark eaves of a Moreton Bay fig. Fist-sized mynah birds bickered amid the branches and shrieked avian imprecations at passers-by. Ruby shook and closed her umbrella and dropped a tobacco pouch and envelope of papers on the table. 2Fly propped his bike and then stood, still half in the rain, wondering whether to commit himself by sitting as well.

A waiter arrived and she ordered coffees for both of them.

“I’ve got a delivery to make,” he said.

The corner of her mouth quirked, amused. “Not your problem any more. Here.” She offered him a rollup. He hesitated, took it and sat, turning the chair opposite her so that he was side on to the street. She passed him a lighter and rolled another for herself.

2Fly lit up and took a long drag. He tried to match her cool tone. “What do you want?”

She kept her eyes down, on the cigarette she was rolling with meticulous care. “Couple of mutual acquaintances came to see me. They say you owe them a favour.”

She might as well have kicked him in the guts. For a minute he couldn’t move or breathe. He’d known the price, when they’d taken him off the death bus to Mount Royal – not a mile from where he sat now. But he’d thought, once the Junta came down and he and Blinks had found themselves clear of the wreckage and still breathing, that he was out from under.

His eyes burned. He managed a breath that wasn’t quite a sob. “I’m out of the game.”

She lit up, looked at him through the smoke. “So am I.”

Resentment welled up. “What if I won’t?”

“Ain’t just you to think about, is there?”

He started to rise. “You fucking…”

Ruby clamped a hand on his forearm and pushed him back down. Emotion cracked her cool facade for the first time. Anger. “Don’t shoot the messenger, kid.”

2Fly glared back at her for a minute, then subsided and shook his arm free as he looked away. The waiter arrived with thimble cups of thick Turkish coffee. Ruby Tuesday sipped hers and 2Fly toyed with his, watching the fall of water over the archway.

“I never asked them to do me any favours.”

“Way it works.”

He tried a sip of his coffee, pushed it away. His cigarette had burned down to ash. She nudged the kit his way. He shook his head. “What’s the job?”

“You ever run into an Islander, name of Siaosi Tialata?”

He had to think about it. “Tia. I heard he was dead.”

“Seems the Hand dug him up,” she said. “There’s a corruption trial on at the Barracks Courthouse. Bunch of cops in the dock. Our Tia’s giving evidence tomorrow. He knows our mutual acquaintances about as well as we do. He can name them and they can name us. He hasn’t been asked the wrong questions yet. Before he is, they’d like you to give him a message.”

He felt sick. “In the courthouse?”

Ruby nodded. For a moment, he thought he might’ve caught a flash of sympathy in her expression, but when he looked at her straight all he saw was business. He thought she’d tell him again that was the way it worked, that they’d given him his life once upon a time and that meant they owned it and now they wanted it back. Or that at least his sacrifice would save her life and Blinky Bill’s and Friendly’s as well, with the Hand as unlikely as the Junta to discriminate on the basis of guilt or innocence. Instead, she said, “They tell me security’ll be hacked to get you in with the message. Borgs’ll go off line. Long enough for you to have a chance to get back out.”

It wasn’t much and what it was was more than likely a lie, but he clung to it. He tried not to think of the men her false promises had lured to their deaths. “When?”

“Man’s due to testify at four. The delivery’s to be made while he’s in the stand. They’ll probably be running late. You got a ‘pod?”

He nodded, wanting home, and Friendly.

“You can track it on the web. You got a courier pass at the Barracks, right? Won’t matter if you hang around a little while – but not too long.” She gave him the rest of the details then, while he struggled to take it all in, his brain full of nothing but Friendly: her frowning over some burnt might’ve-been-a-meal in the kitchen; her toothy smile, too wide for her narrow face. Ruby’s image intruded, laid out in naked glory on the bed beneath him. He shook his head to be rid of her.

When she was done talking, he stood. He shivered as the breeze caught the damp fabric across his back.

“I’m going home,” he said. To tell Friendly he loved her, to make love to her. To lie, unsleeping, with her warming his back.

Ruby made to hand him his satchel. Fumbled it so that the top came open. He glimpsed a cloth-wrapped bundle slip from her sleeve and into the bag. She closed it again and passed it up. He hesitated, thought of not taking it, and dying within a block of walking away, no doubt, but not giving them the satisfaction of doing their bidding. Impossible, with Blinks’ life and Friendly’s both on the line. And Ruby had held out the hope, however slim, that he might come through it. Because of that, he was hooked.

He took the bag. She held his gaze.

“Thank you,” she said.

He gritted his teeth to hold in most of what wanted to get out, said, “You know where I live.” A nod. “I don’t come out, you go tell them – Friendly and my brother – you tell them what happened. Tell Friendly.”

He waited for her to nod again, a dip of her chin, still holding his eyes.

He turned away, suddenly blind.

#

Ruby watched him go, almost forgetting his bike, walking it away, straight-backed and refusing to bow, even though what she’d done to him must’ve broken him all the way down.

“Poor fucking kid,” she said, aloud.

He’d changed since she knew him before, become something of the man he’d promised. Got weak, the old him would’ve said. Grown up, she would’ve told him, had he asked. She remembered the last time she’d see him, years ago, a week before the Hand had come, and silver men had rained from the sky. She’d delivered a man, marked for execution by Mr Stanley and Mr Oliver, into the untender care of 2Fly and his fellow Bloods. The last of the three times she’d done it. She’d met 2Fly’s stare, briefly, but turned away without a word, not waiting or wanting to see him participate in the violence to come.

She rolled another cigarette and stood, dropped money on the table and stalked out into the rain.

She wove her way along the Zoo’s long axis, under the girders of the elevated train line and through the gated brick wall that enclosed the enclave’s north-eastern tip. She skirted the strip of weed-cracked tarmac separating the Zoo from the featureless white cube that overlooked it.

In there was where the Missionaries of Charity had made their home, since their expulsion from Kolkata. Where they brought the dead and dying and their meagre worldly goods, the latter to be hoarded for the greater glory of God, the wired-up husks of the former to be sold to whatever temporal authority happened to be bidding high that day.

Mr Stanley loitered at the corner of the Zoo Park wall. Ruby knew for a certainty, then, that they weren’t using her because they wanted a cut out. That she’d be assuming the Missionary Position, more than likely, if she tried to run: face down while they sawed open her skull.

He fell into step beside her as she turned onto Brunswick Road and joined the foot traffic. Pedestrians veered aside from the man in mirrorshades and silk, as though the repeller field around him cleared his path of people as well as rain. The same invisible force caused their eyes to slide away from the woman in the company of a cop.

“Well?” he said. His ridiculous heels clicked on the concrete – that said he didn’t need to chase you, his reach was long enough that he’d catch you anyway.

She refused to look at him, dry under his halo while she was bedraggled, it only occurring to her now that she’d left her umbrella back at the cafe.

“You heard,” she said. It was a guess, that they’d got a bug onto her when they’d come into her shop, the kind that would weave itself into her hair and spoor onto 2Fly and whoever else she happened to talk to for more than a few seconds.

“Done us proud, Ruby Tuesday,” he said.

“I’m out of the game,” she replied.

He smiled – the way the Devil might when he’s holding five Aces and all you’ve got is a busted flush.

“I’m leaving,” she said. It was bravado to say it, and stupid, when she knew they weren’t done with her yet.

He didn’t reply, only smiled his Devil smile.

She extended her stride and left him behind.

#

Home was the usual, when 2Fly arrived, with Blinky Bill filling the couch and vibrating gently to himself. His eyes were open but glazed behind his plastic visor, jacked in to some Cantonese fantasy site, no doubt, chewing up bandwidth and racking up a bill. Working out, Blinks called it and spent most of his time at it, when he wasn’t out chasing debt runners, living in virtuality while his implant wires stimulated his muscles.

Friendly wasn’t in.

The usual jumble of sounds and smells penetrated the apartment’s paper walls. A neighbourly tumult, most days, but today it was too much to bear, to sit and listen to life going on all around. 2Fly left his brother to his virtual porn and went up to the roof.

He leaned on the low parapet – no point seeking shelter under the solar panels when he was already drenched. He tried not to think about the dead weight of the gun in the bottom of his satchel. He desperately wanted to soak up the sensations of the moment: the patter of rain drops in his hair and against the clinging fabric of his shirt, the leisurely ‘voom’ of the wind turbines, spinning, but too slowly to generate any power. He couldn’t hold his mind to any of it.

The clouds were low enough to swallow the tops of the tallest towers, their bellies disintegrating into misty tentacles. The scent of herbs – rosemary and mint – reached him from the roof garden of a neighbouring building. The clamour of the Bourke Street souk drifted across from one block north. The sun, unseen, slipped away and lights blinked on across the faces of the commune’s towers – one here, two more, a handful over there. An island of functioning anarchy amid the predatory dysfunction of the megalopolis.

A shiver made his elbow slip, jolted him out of his daze. After a few moments more, he stood, denying the protests of stiff legs and back.

#

Friendly was in the kitchen when she heard 2Fly come in, brushing the wet out of her hair and browsing the meagre contents of the larder for what they might have for dinner.

“Hey, babe,” she called out. “Where you been? You get my text?” She turned, saw his face. Her smile died. She stopped brushing, frowned at him. “What’s wrong?”

His expression pulled into a grimace that was just short of tears. He got it under control, a moment too late. “I gotta say goodbye, babe.”

“What?”

He reached out a hand. She drew back, folded her arms. The narrow expanse of floor yawned between them. His fingers hung in no-man’s land.

“What’re you talking about?” she said. Panicked possibilities tumbled through her brain: another woman, trouble with his dealer.

His chin trembled as he drew a shaky breath. “I owe some guys a favour, babe. They’re calling it.”

She didn’t understand – it wasn’t her language, a communard all her life. “What kind of favour? Fly? Tell me.”

“They did me a favour. Back when, before. Got me off the bus to Mount Royal.”

“Mount Royal?” Now she had a dreadful inkling. “What did you do?”

His face told her he didn’t want to talk about it, that she was sidetracking from what was important here and now. “I killed some men, babe. Me and Blinks.”

“You had to. You had to survive after your mother abandoned you,” she said, and she knew she was rationalising even before he started to shake his head.

She stared at him in a long silence. “Then we’ll run.”

He shook his head again. “Can’t.” And now she understood who he owed, or near enough, from the weight on that word. “I got to go tomorrow. I might be back.”

Now she crossed the gap, grabbed handfuls of his sodden shirt. “Go where? Do what?”

He lifted his arms around the outside of hers, pulled her close. She submitted, but stood straight, her temple against his cheek.

She heard the sofa creak in the next room, Blinky Bill stirring. He groaned and she pictured him standing and stretching.

“There some dinner happening?” Blinks came into the kitchen and into Friendly’s line of sight. His watery eyes narrowed behind his spectacles. “Bro?”

“Been called, Blinks,” said 2Fly.

Blinks’ face twisted up, his comprehension instant. “No.” He blinked rapidly, the way he always did when he was agitated. His arms started to shake, veins standing out on his thick muscles as the adrenalin triggered his wires. The quaking spread quickly across his shoulders and chest and down his torso to his legs.

“No. Fuck ‘em. Fuck them!”

Friendly pressed herself closer against 2Fly, tucked her face into his neck. She felt herself shutting down, her emotions going cold in front of Blinky Bill’s anger, always the best way to deal with it.

She heard the same coldness in 2Fly’s voice. “Can’t Blinks.”

“I’ll do it.”

“Has to be me, bro,” 2Fly said. “Me, or it’s me and you and Friendly.”

Blinky Bill closed his eyes and opened his mouth wide in a silent scream, his head going back into his thick neck, fists clenched in front of him and arms so taut that the muscle cords started to separate.

#

It was bravado – and stupid, to boot – to go to the Barracks Courthouse the next day, but Ruby went, feeling obligated. She’d been unable to sleep, imagining 2Fly with his girl, clinging to each other and the false hope she’d given him, knowing damn well that the borgs being off would get him in, but there wasn’t a chance in hell of him walking out again.

Someone who knew should witness his passing. Besides which, she’d promised she’d take the news to his girl afterwards and wanted to be able to tell her, for a certainty, that she’d seen him fall with her own two eyes.

She arrived during the afternoon adjournment, took her place in the high public gallery that overlooked the courtroom before proceedings resumed. Slow-spinning fans hung from the ceiling, their blades only slightly above her eye level. The air they wafted felt cool across her freshly naked scalp. The benches below began to fill with lawyers and accredited bloggers. The lawyers on both sides were hooded, their identities protected. Ruby was surprised to see no phalanx of olive dress uniforms filling the back rows. The blogs mentioned their presence, an intimidating show of support for their colleagues, at all previous sessions.

She fished out her ‘pod and logged on to the courthouse net, found a couple of news and opinion blogs that mentioned it. She felt a stab of unease when she discovered that Tia wasn’t mentioned among the witnesses scheduled to take the stand.

Armed borgs brought the accused into the box and left them to stand. A stir passed among the prisoners, nudging each other and nodding towards the vacant rear benches – wondering, Ruby thought, if their fellow cops had abandoned them.

The disembodied voice of the courthouse AI said, “All rise.” God moonlighting as a legal clerk. The judge appeared behind the armoured glass of the podium and sat – like the lawyers, genderless beneath hood and veil and flowing black robes. Everyone bar the prisoners resumed their seats. The judge’s synthesized voice gave no hint, either, of their identity as they banged their gavel and called on the prosecution to resume the case.

A witness took the stand. Time dragged as both legal teams got bogged down in minutiae. The trial was a propaganda piece, its ostensible purpose to display the Hand’s relentless pursuit of corruption. But the Hand had used these prisoners as ruthlessly as it still used Mr Stanley and Mr Oliver, until these had been foolish enough to get caught with their fingers in the till. The trial’s real message was that the city’s new masters would tolerate no subversion of their oligopoly. In that, they differed not at all from those they’d overthrown.

At three-fortyfive, a shining silver man strode through the courtroom doors. Another followed. They moved as fluidly as any flesh-and-bone human, their gleaming metallic skins seamless over bodies like Michelangelo nudes. The defence lawyer trailed off in mid sentence as a murmured shockwave washed across the room.

“Christ,” whispered the man seated beside Ruby.

Close enough, she thought, as startled as anyone by the sudden appearance of High Baroque Chinese tech in their midst. Metal feet clicked on slate as the Ming-kuang positioned themselves to flank the door. Two robed figures followed them and another pair of Ming-kuang. All eyes locked on the pair the shining men escorted, robed and veiled like the court officials, but head to foot in purple, except for the bright flashes of white gloves on their fingers.

Clean Hand.

The pair sat together in the empty block of benches the supporting cops normally occupied. The blunt symbolism of that action was not lost on Ruby. Nor, she suspected, on anyone else present. She jumped at the crack of the judge’s gavel. After a pause, the defence lawyer collected his thoughts enough to resume questioning the witness.

Ruby ignored him, still staring at the two in purple. Siaosi Tialata wasn’t the target at all. Or, perhaps he was, but only in the sense that the unhappy coincidence of his arrest had accelerated an already existing schedule. As likely, Tia really had died, way back when, and everything Mr Stanley and Mr Oliver had told her had been a lie. Either way, the pistol she’d dropped into 2Fly’s satchel was not a functioning gun.

The sons-of-bitches were launching a coup.

She’d checked the pistol over before she’d passed it on, out of habit and knowing who she was dealing with. Probably 2Fly had done the same. How the bomb was integrated and how it might be triggered, she could only guess.

She tried to breathe, but her ribs wouldn’t expand. She got up, stamped on the feet of the guy next to her and mumbled an apology. A Ming-kuang lifted its shining sculpted face. Ruby fled.

Out the door and down the stairs, trying not to run, to keep it all off her face. Along the corridor and into the long central hall, flat soles slapping on the stone tiles while the skin tried to crawl off her back and overtake her. Across the foyer, past the security point and out the doors. Down six steps to the red paved courtyard, the gate ahead, open, iron railings painted green.

#

2Fly perched on a bench in the courthouse’s central hall, pretending to compare his delivery schedule with the contents of his satchel. His fished out his ‘pod to start drafting a text message.

Security borgs slumped, motionless, in their alcoves – impossible to tell whether they were shut down or not. The gaze of a living security guard settled on him, slid away again when 2Fly gave him a what-can-you-do smile.

The guard’s head turned abruptly towards the front of the hall. His jaw fell open.

2Fly looked. The bottom dropped out of his guts. Half a dozen Ming-kuang marched across the slates. Purple-robed figures walked between them. He watched, numbly, as they strode past. The Clean Hand and four of the Ming-kuang went through the doors of the courtroom that he’d been waiting to enter himself. The last pair of silver men took up posts to either side of the doors.

2Fly’s fingers tightened around his satchel, the hard ceramic lump of the gun concealed within. Not a gun at all. Suddenly he knew, with brutal certainty, there was no way he was walking out of there. Puffy eyed and haggard, that morning, really had been his last sight of Friendly. He hadn’t quite believed it until now, had held tight to the false thread of hope Ruby had offered. He didn’t know whether to spit with fury or cry that she’d duped him so thoroughly.

As though summoned by his helpless anger, the siren bitch chose that moment to appear on the stairs down from the courtroom’s public gallery. Ruby didn’t see him as she hurried past. Her gaze was locked on the exit. Her face was grey-white, like she’d just looked into her own grave and found something grinning back at her.

He knew, then, that she hadn’t lied to him. She’d come to witness his passing, in case he didn’t make it. Had put herself at risk to do it. Had figured out the lie, seconds after him, when she saw the Clean Hand and their Ming-kuang guards for herself.

He watched her hurry down the steps to the front doors. If he walked away now, they were both dead.

Them, and Friendly, and Blinks.

He stood.

#

Ruby was a hundred metres up St Kilda Road when she heard the flat ‘crump’ of the explosion. She felt it through her feet, her knees going momentarily weak. She kept on walking, ignoring the klaxons and shouts that started up behind her. A tram went by, slowing, and Ruby crossed the traffic lanes and joined the back of the queue to board.

She stayed by the door, hanging from a wrist strap while she wiped away tears with her other hand. She felt as hollowed out and empty as a borg might.

Not out of this yet, she told herself.

The tram rolled down toward the river, past the fortified cylinder of the Concert Hall Watch Station, and over the water with its rainbow skin of volatiles. Past the avant-garde angles of the Federation Square squats, and the unroofed buttresses of St Paul’s Cathedral, into the lee of the commune’s towers.

She got off where the tram crossed Bourke Street, stepped out into the middle of the souk that had permanently converted the mall into a single-lane thoroughfare for trams and rickshaws and pedestrians to share. Yesterday’s rain had evaporated already. The crowds of shoppers moved within a haze of reddish dust.

Ruby faced downhill, towards Spencer Street, where the trains left for Ballarat and places west.

She turned away, went the opposite direction, up to Russell Street and right, until it intersected with Little Collins. She found the right building easily enough, and had the luxury of an elevator ride up six storeys. She made her way past paper-walled apartments, the air thick with the smell of too-many bodies. Someone’s kids were gleefully murdering each other, one of them communicating entirely in ear-piercing squeals.

She knocked on a particular doorframe.

A girl answered, long-faced, with a body built of bony angles. She’d been crying.

“You Friendly?”

“Do I look Friendly to you?”

A man loomed behind the girl. Ruby had time to recognise Blinky Bill before he was shoving Friendly aside, a hand lashing out for Ruby’s neck. The girl bounced off the doorframe and down. She caught herself awkwardly on one elbow and the opposite hand.

Then the behemoth had Ruby by the throat and was lifting her, one-handed, till her toes only just brushed the floor. She didn’t struggle, just hung there with her eyes filling with blood, rasping air through clenched teeth and staring him down.

With a mewl of anguish he dropped her. Ruby sprawled on the floor with 2Fly’s girl, Blinky Bill standing over them and quaking with unexpended rage. Ruby hacked and spat.

“Just the fucking messenger,” she rasped.

Blinky Bill pulled back a foot to kick and she rolled away, curling into a ball. The foot came down again without lashing out. Other people had come out into the corridor – a young couple, butt-naked, an older man beyond them. Blinks put his face in his hands and shook.

Ruby uncurled, twisted her head around to look at the girl. She didn’t need to tell her 2Fly was dead.

“Come with me,” she said.

“Where?” the girl asked.

“West.”

The girl’s eyes unfocused, not exactly thinking it over, Ruby guessed, not in any conscious sense, more likely just numb and blanking on some detail of her life with 2Fly. Ruby waited.

The girl nodded.

Blinky Bill didn’t react as they slipped past.

Halfway down in the elevator, the girl asked, “What’s your name?”

“Mira.”

“I’m Friendly.”

They walked side by side across the ground level lobby and through the doors.

Mr Oliver was loitering across the street.

He unfolded his tattooed hands as they came outside, pushed his silk-clad shoulders off the wall he’d been leaning against.

He patted his own hairless scalp. “Like the new look, Ruby.”

Ruby stopped, facing him. “Thought you’d be busy,” she said, and thought she’d probably used up the last of her bravado on those words. She didn’t try to hide the shaking of her hands.

He smirked. “Always got time for you, Ruby.”

She found another ember of defiance in herself, after all. “How you going with those Ming-kuang?”

He sniffed. “Like Paris with Achilles,” he said, and she wondered if his offhandedness was forced or real. “Where you off to, Ruby Tuesday?”

Suddenly, she wasn’t sure if she could answer. “Leaving,” she croaked.

He smiled at that and shook his head. “Still need you, Ruby.”

“If you win,” she said.

“Already have, bar the shouting,” he replied.

She couldn’t believe that. Couldn’t credit that the Hand would be ousted without levelling half the city. Not that the outcome mattered much, when the argument was between the Devil and his twin. The methods of the corrupt and their evangelical opposite had little to distinguish them when viewed from underneath.

“We’re leaving,” Friendly said, and put a hand on Ruby’s arm. The mirrored gaze shifted to the girl, Mr Oliver’s lip curled.

Ruby reached inside her waistband for the roll of dollar and rupee and yuan notes that was everything she had of transportable value. She pressed it into Friendly’s hand.

“Go,” she said. The girl stared at the money stupidly.

There was a bellow from inside the building. Mr Oliver snapped into a fighting stance. Ruby pushed Friendly aside. Blinky Bill charged through the doors.

“Go!” Ruby screamed at her, knowing the likely outcome and hoping Blinks would stay alive long enough for Friendly to get away. Thinking that if she stayed then Mr Oliver might not reach his long arm after the girl. Thinking that it was only what she owed 2Fly.

She watched Friendly sprint up the hill toward the souk, standing quietly while Mr Oliver threw Blinky Bill at the walls.

#

Friendly ran, her lungs feeling like they were tearing up, the breath not wanting to come. “Thank you”, she should’ve said, but hadn’t been able to make the words, not knowing who this tall, bald woman was, stabbed by what her history with 2Fly might be.

She heard Blinky Bill cry out, an animal in pain, but didn’t turn. She couldn’t think about whether 2Fly’s end had been as hard.

Thank you, she thought. Damn you.

She reached the souk and turned west, lost herself in the flow of walkers – White Austros and Islanders and Ghan – who schooled around and between the slow moving electric rickshaws. A tram rolled by, coming up the opposite way. People and rickshaws alike sheered off around it as though magnetically repelled, finding refuge in the spaces between the stalls.

At Spencer Street she veered away from the train station, climbed the wide bridge over the tracks. At the apex, people clustered. Friendly stopped to follow their stares. North of the city, the great white cube at Mount Royal was cracked open, oily black smoke spilling from its guts.

Change was coming, among the city’s masters. It had happened before. She looked towards the commune, its ranked concrete towers on either side of the bustling souk, with their wind farms and washing lines and rooftop gardens. She wondered if they would stay untouched this time. She turned south, to the crystal towers rising out of the Bay. They glittered in the sun, no telling what might be going on within.

2Fly was a jagged hurting place inside her, that might fade or scar over in time, that made her want to curl over on her knees with her forehead on the ground, now.

She turned her back on the towers, concrete and crystal, hurried down the other side of the bridge and turned northwest, her objective the grand caravanserai on Ballarat Road, where the camel trains came and went.

#

Ruby sat, legs crossed, on an abandoned plastic garden chair, by the brass gauze wall of the Ring. A seagull perched nearby while it scraped the muck of the Bay from its feathers with its beak. Its brethren leaned on the breeze, holding station in mid-air like a flock of tethered kites. Out across the water, the Spires rose, untouched and unchanged by the turmoil of recent days. Only the pecking order of the parasites within was altered.

The wind bent the brim of her sun hat. Ruby took a long drag on her cigarette. She wondered where 2Fly’s girl was, if she’d got to the border and across. Ruby liked to think so. She exhaled smoke, breathed in air. She flicked her cigarette away, a dying spray of hot ash where it struck the dead matter of the Ring.

Footsteps approached, stiletto heels clicking over the cracked concrete of the Esplanade.

~END~

(c) Ian McHugh, 2006

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